The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft is on its way to the International Space Station with new experiments related to emergency navigation, DNA sequencing and ultra-cold atom research.

Cygnus lifted off on an Antares 230 rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia carrying about 7 400 pounds of research equipment, cargo and supplies that will support dozens of the more than 250 investigations underway on the space station.

NASA astronauts Scott Tingle and Ricky Arnold will use the space station’s robotic arm to capture Cygnus when it arrives at the station 24 May 24.

But included in the high-tech cargo in the pressurised area of Cygnus is a centuries-old method of celestial navigation.

The Sextant Navigation investigation will explore the use of a handheld sextant for emergency navigation on missions in deep space as humans look to travel farther from Earth.

The ability to sight angles between the Moon or planets and stars offers crews another option to find their way home if communications and main computers are compromised.

Monitoring crew health and the biological environment of the space station, and understanding long-term effects of space travel on both, are critical to NASA’s plans for long-duration, deep space exploration.

The Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) study is the agency’s next step toward advancing in-space DNA sequencing technologies that can identify microbial organisms living on the space station and understanding how the DNA of humans, plants and microbes are affected by microgravity.

BEST will use a process that sequences DNA directly from a sample, with minimal preparation, rather than using the traditional technique of growing a culture from the sample.

In the realm of modern physics, the new Cold Atom Lab (CAL) on Cygnus could help answer some big questions. CAL creates a temperature 10-billion times colder than the vacuum of space, then uses lasers and magnetic forces to slow down atoms until they are almost motionless.

In the microgravity environment of the space station, CAL can observe these ultra-cold atoms for much longer than possible on Earth.

Results of this research could lead to a number of improved technologies, including sensors, quantum computers and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation.