Cygnus cargo ship launches to space station, deploys one of two solar arrays

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated at 2 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT) with solar array update.

Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket fires off its launch pad in Virginia to begin the NG-18 resupply mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

Using its second-to-last Antares rocket with Russian engines before a redesign to rely on all-U.S. propulsion, Northrop Grumman sent a Cygnus supply ship into orbit from Virginia on Monday to deliver spacewalk equipment, experiments, and fresh treats for the crew on the International Space Station.

The 139-foot-tall (42.5-meter) Antares rocket lit its twin Russian-made RD-181 engines and climbed away from pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia at 5:32:42 a.m. EST (1032:42 GMT).

The launcher headed southeast from the spaceport on Virginia’s Eastern Shore — co-located with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility — to line up with the orbital path of the space station.

The Antares rocket’s Ukrainian-built first stage shut off its kerosene-fueled engines more than three minutes into the flight after climbing above a cloud layer over the Virginia launch site. The booster jettisoned a few seconds after engine cutoff, followed by separation of of the rocket’s nose cone and ignition of the U.S.-made upper stage solid rocket motor more than four minutes into the mission.

The Castor 30XL upper stage consumed its pre-packed solid propellant in less than three minutes, setting the stage for deployment of the 17,853-pound (8,098-kilogram) Cygnus spacecraft about nine minutes after liftoff. Northrop Grumman’s launch commentator confirmed the rocket achieved the expected orbit to send the Cygnus supply ship on a course toward the space station.

The Cygnus spacecraft was expected to open its fan-shaped solar arrays a few hours after launch, then perform a series of orbital adjustment burns to fine-tune its approach to the space station. NASA said later Monday morning that teams only confirmed one of the two solar arrays deployed.

“Northrop Grumman is gathering data on the second array deployment and is working closely with NASA,” NASA said. “Northrop Grumman has reported to NASA that Cygnus has sufficient power to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Wednesday, Nov. 9, to complete its primary mission, and NASA is assessing this and the configuration required for capture and berthing. We will provide more information as it becomes available.”

NASA astronaut Nicole Mann will operate the station’s robotic arm to capture the Cygnus spacecraft around 5:05 a.m. EST (1005 GMT) Wednesday and place it on a berthing port at the orbiting lab’s Unity module for a nearly three-month stay.

The first launch attempt for the NG-18 resupply mission Sunday was scrubbed after a fire alarm at the Cygnus spacecraft’s control center in Dulles, Virginia, forced officials to evacuate the facility with only minutes remaining in the countdown.

The mission marks the 18th Cygnus spacecraft to fly to the space station. Northrop Grumman has a multibillion-dollar cargo resupply contract with NASA covering Cygnus missions through NG-25.

The Cygnus spacecraft on Northrop Grumman’s NG-18 mission is hauling about 8,265 pounds (3,749 kilograms) pounds of equipment to the International Space Station, just 1 pound shy of the mission’s total carrying capacity.

“We really topped it off,” said Steve Krein, vice president of civil and commercial space at Northrop Grumman. “And also we’re maximizing the fuel load to really allow for contingencies as required, and also for operational maneuvers on station to support our mission should the customer choose to exercise that.”

The Cygnus spacecraft will use its main engine to reboost the orbit of the space station while it is attached to the complex.

“Cygnus is carrying some important spacewalk hardware,” said Jeff Arend, NASA’s manager of systems engineering and integration for the International Space Station program. “One critical set of hardware is what we call a ‘mod kit,’ which is a collection of brackets that the crew will install outside while on the spacewalk that’s currently planned for Nov. 15.

“The crew will partially assemble it inside, and then they will take it through the airlock and install it at the base of a solar array wing so that it can be a support structure for a future set of roll out solar arrays,” Arend said.

“Cygnus will be bringing up some food treats for the crew,” he said. Those include peanut butter, olives, cheeses, pumpkin spice cappuccino, apples, blueberries, oranges, and chocolate and vanilla ice cream.

The mission will also deliver to the space station a 3D bioprinter to conduct research in human tissue printing, a plant growth experiment, and technology demonstrations.

The space station crew and support teams on the ground are gearing up for a busy few weeks ahead, with the arrival of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft set for Wednesday, followed by the launch and docking of a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship later this month.

There are also seven spacewalks planned before the end of the year outside the space station — three outside the U.S. segment using NASA spacesuits, and four Russian excursions.

At the end of the mission, the Cygnus spacecraft will depart the station in January and head for a destructive re-entry into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean with several tons of trash.

The current configuration of the Antares rocket, known as the Antares 230+, will be retired next year to allow Northrop Grumman and partner Firefly Aerospace to develop a new U.S.-made booster to replace the Ukrainian/Russian design for future space station cargo flights. The launch Monday was the 16th successful flight of an Antares rocket in 17 attempts, and the seventh to use the Antares 230+ configuration, all of which have been successful.

Northrop Grumman is transitioning away from two of its major suppliers after supply chain strains caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. NPO Energomash, a Russian rocket engine builder, manufactures the RD-181 engines used on the Antares 230+ rocket’s first stage. And the first stage structure itself is designed and built by Ukrainian companies Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash.

“We’ve had great support from those three suppliers,” said Kurt Eberly, Northrop Grumman’s director of space launch programs. “Things are working very well technically on the vehicle and programmatically we got great support from them. I just wish it could have continued, but also this is an opportunity for us to transition to what we think is going to be a more competitive vehicle.”

In August, Northrop Grumman and Firefly Aerospace announced a partnership to develop a new U.S.-built Antares first stage booster powered by seven Miranda engines developed by Firefly. That rocket, called Antares 330, is scheduled to debut in late 2024.

Northrop Grumman had two engine sets and two Antares first stage boosters in the United States when Russian invaded Ukraine in February, enough to cover the company’s needs for the NG-18 and NG-19 missions. After the launch of NG-19 on the final Antares 230+ rocket, currently scheduled for March, Northrop Grumman will launch the next three Cygnus cargo missions on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets from Cape Canaveral in 2023 and 2024.

Falcon 9 rockets already launch SpaceX’s own resupply missions to the space station with the Dragon spacecraft. Unlike the Dragon, the Cygnus supply ships will launch covered by the Falcon 9’s payload fairing. Eberly said in August that Northrop Grumman booked the NG-20, NG-21, and NG-22 launches with SpaceX using the company’s own internal funding.

Cygnus supply ships have launched on other types of rockets before. Three Cygnus missions lifted off from Cape Canaveral on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets while engineers redesigned the Antares rocket with new RD-181 engines after an engine failure doomed an Antares launch in 2014.

The NG-18 mission patch. Credit: Northrop Grumman

Officials hope the Antares 330 rocket will be ready to resume space station cargo launches from Virginia in late 2024 for the NG-23, NG-24, and NG-25 missions, the final three cargo flights on Northrop Grumman’s current contract with NASA.

Northrop Grumman and Firefly officials hope to attract more business for the Antares 330 rocket beyond space station cargo launches. The companies also plan a new rocket design currently called the Medium Launch Vehicle, or MLV, that will replace the Antares 330. The new MLV will have a liquid-fueled upper stage to replace the solid-fueled motor used on the Antares 230+ and Antares 330.

Eberly said the configuration of the Antares 330 with seven main engines is “compatible” with future attempts to perform propulsive landings with the booster.

“We’re building in the capability to do reuse later in that development,” Eberly said. “We’ll start out with an expendable version, and we’ll bring in the reuse later, is the plan.”

In a pre-launch press conference Saturday, Eberly said the fallout from Russia’s military attack on Ukraine has not impacted any of the preparations for the NG-18 mission.

“We do all the work on all the hardware … and we had all the hardware here prior to the launch of NG-17 for the NG-18 and NG-19 missions,” Eberly said. “So really it’s been unaffected.”

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