WASHINGTON — A Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo spacecraft is on its way to the International Space Station after a successful launch Nov. 7 on the next-to-last flight of the current version of the company’s Antares rocket.
The Antares 230+ rocket lifted off from Pad-0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at 5:32 a.m. Eastern. The rocket placed a Cygnus spacecraft into orbit that is set to arrive at the ISS early Nov. 9.
The launch was originally scheduled for Nov. 6 but scrubbed about 15 minutes before liftoff because of a fire alarm at Northrop’s Cygnus mission control center in Dulles, Virginia. The center was evacuated and could not support the launch.
The Cygnus spacecraft, named S.S. Sally Ride after the first American woman to go to space, is flying the NG-18 mission for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program. The spacecraft is delivering 3,749 kilograms of cargo, including crew supplies, science investigations and hardware for the station.
Among the hardware on board are brackets for another set of ISS Rollout Solar Arrays, or iROSAs, that will be installed on the station. NASA astronauts Josh Cassada and Frank Rubio will install the brackets on a Nov. 15 spacewalk, which will be followed by spacewalks Nov. 28 and Dec. 1 to install iROSA arrays on another set of brackets.
The Cygnus is delivering a set of payloads that include Redwire’s BioFabrication Facility, a 3D printer for producing human tissue, and experiments ranging from plant growth to mudflows. Cygnus is also delivering the first satellites built by Uganda and Zimbabwe, cubesats that will be deployed along with a Japanese satellite.
The research is a mix of new and existing users. “There are a lot of firsts in terms of research on this flight,” said Heidi Parris, NASA ISS associate program scientist, at a Nov. 5 pre-launch briefing, citing some of the new research payloads and the cubesats. “We also have a lot of investigations that are building upon past successes and past results in a field in order to expand that area of research,” such as the BioFabrication Facility, which is making its second flight.
The Cygnus is optimized to maximize the amount of cargo it is carrying as well as propellant that will be used for ISS reboost maneuvers while attached to the station. The Cygnus is filled to within less than a kilogram of its capacity, said Steve Krein, vice president of civil and commercial space at Northrop Grumman, at the briefing. He added there are no plans for any extended mission for the spacecraft after it completes a three-month stay at the station.
Northrop Grumman increased the payload performance of the Antares launching the Cygnus by about 70 kilograms, said Kurt Eberly, director of space launch programs at Northrop Grumman, increasing the cargo capacity of Cygnus by 20 kilograms. “
“We didn’t change any hardware,” he said, with engineers instead reviewing data from six previous launches of the Antares 230+ to refine the models of the vehicle’s performance. “We took some of the conservatism out now that we have that flight data to look at. By taking that conservatism out, we aimed a little higher and we’re able to offer a little bit more performance.”
The launch is also the first for Antares since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, days after the NG-17 launch. Antares uses a first stage built in Ukraine and powered by RD-181 engines manufactured in Russia.
Eberly said that that had no effect on preparations for the NG-18 launch. “We do all the work on the hardware,” he said, with all the Antares hardware for the NG-18 mission and next spring’s NG-19 delivered before the NG-17 launch. “We’ve been in communication with our suppliers and it’s been situation normal for the processing.”
“We’ve gotten support from our Ukrainian partners,” Krein said in an earlier interview, with some personnel remaining in the U.S. “We’ve got subject matter expertise both in house and with some industrial partners to fill any gaps that we might have in the in the Russian coverage.”
NG-18, though, is the penultimate launch of the Antares 230+ vehicle. Northrop announced in August it is working with Firefly Aerospace on a new version of the vehicle, the Antares 330, that will replace the existing first stage with one developed by Firefly using new engines it is developing.
The Antares 330 will be ready for a first launch no earlier than 2024. After NG-19, Northrop Grumman plans to launch three Cygnus missions on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets until the Antares 330 is ready.