Antares launch
An Antares rocket lifts off Feb. 19 from Wallops Island, Virginia, carrying a Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Credit: NASA TV

WASHINGTON — A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket launched a Cygnus cargo spacecraft carrying several tons of cargo for the International Space Station Feb. 19.

The Antares 230+ rocket lifted off on schedule at 12:40 p.m. Eastern from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia, on the NG-17 mission. The two-stage rocket placed the Cygnus spacecraft into orbit nearly nine minutes later. The spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the station early Feb. 21 and be berthed by the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm.

The Cygnus spacecraft, named by Northrop the S.S. Piers Sellers after the late NASA astronaut, is carrying nearly 3,800 kilograms of cargo for the station. That includes 1,352 kilograms of crew supplies, 1,308 kilograms of vehicle hardware, 896 kilograms of science investigations and smaller amounts of spacewalk equipment and computer resources.

The vehicle hardware includes a “mod kit” to support the future installation of another set of new solar arrays on the station that will be delivered on a Dragon cargo spacecraft, as well as equipment to allow the deployment of trash from Nanoracks’ Bishop airlock on the station. Research payloads include an experiment to study how tumor cells respond to a drug treatment and tests of a new Japanese lithium-ion battery designed to be safer and operate over a wider range of temperatures and in vacuum.

Northrop has made changes to Cygnus to enable it to reboost the station. “We’ve optimized the Cygnus configuration to remove some secondary structural elements to maximize the cargo load and also allow for full fuel load that enables a new operational capability,” said Steve Krein, vice president for civil and commercial space at Northrop Grumman Tactical Space Systems, during a Feb. 18 media briefing.

With a new gimbaled engine, Cygnus will be able to reboost the station’s orbit while berthed, tasks currently handled by thrusters on the Russian segment of the station or docked Progress cargo spacecraft. Krein said current plans call for a firing in April that would change the station’s velocity by 0.5 meters per second.

Cygnus is scheduled to remain at the station for about 100 days, with an unberthing in late May.

Antares geopolitics

The launch took place amid rising tensions in Eastern Europe as Russia massed troops near the border with Ukraine. President Joe Biden said Feb. 18 that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine “in the coming days” and target its capital, Kyiv.

An invasion and reactions to it could pose long-term issues for the Antares rocket. The rocket’s first stage is built in Ukraine by Yuzhnoye State Design Office and Yuzhmash Machine Building plant, and is powered by an RD-181 engine from Russia’s NPO Energomash.

“We’re obviously monitoring the situation and hopefully it can be resolved,” said Kurt Eberly, director of space launch programs for Northrop Grumman Launch and Missile Defense Systems, at the Feb. 18 briefing about the launch.

The company already had all the components needed for the next two Antares launches, scheduled for August and early 2023. “The best mitigation we can have is to be buying ahead,” he said. “Hopefully, that will tide us over until these tensions can subside and we can be back to normal operating procedure.”

A 2014 Antares launch failure led Orbital ATK — later acquired by Northrop Grumman — to use United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket for two Cygnus missions in 2015 and 2016 while working to return Antares to flight. That would not be an option this time if Antares is unavailable as ULA has previously stated that it has sold all its remaining Atlas vehicles as it prepares to introduce the Vulcan rocket.

Cargo contract status

NG-17 is the sixth mission under Northrop’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) 2 contract with NASA. That contract currently runs through the NG-19 mission in early 2023.

NASA is in the process of extending its CRS2 contracts with both Northrop Grumman and SpaceX, said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, at the Feb. 18 briefing. He declined to offer details about those extensions because of the ongoing procurement but said it would include missions through 2026.

“We’re buying this a little bit a yard at a time or so, working with the different providers,” he said. “My hope is that in the next month or so we can get some more public information out.”

That extension would not apply to Sierra Space, which has yet to fly the first of its CRS2 missions as it continues to develop its Dream Chaser vehicle. Montalbano said NASA expected the first Dream Chaser cargo mission in late 2022 or early 2023.

Speaking at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 16, Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra Space, said the first launch was now expected in the first quarter of 2023. She did not state if that schedule is paced by work on the Dream Chaser itself or the ULA Vulcan rocket that will launch it.

NASA does not currently plan to hold a new competition for commercial cargo contracts. The agency released Feb. 3 a procurement document formally known as a “justification for other than full and open competition” regarding plans to extend the current CRS2 contracts. That document concluded that there are no other “certified visiting vehicles in the current marketplace for providing cargo resupply to the ISS.”

As part of a market survey in 2021, NASA did receive capability statements from three other companies that proposed offering cargo services to the station. One was from Boeing, which unsuccessfully bid on the original CRS2 contract using a cargo version of its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle. The NASA document, which redacted specific details about the proposals, stated that Starliner’s capability to deliver pressurized cargo to the station was “well below” the current contract requirement of 2,500 kilograms per mission. It added that redesign work on Starliner to carry cargo would also be required.

NASA also received capability statements from two small launch vehicle developers, Astra Space and Firefly Aerospace. NASA concluded Astra’s cargo capacity was also well below the CRS2 contract requirement, and that the company had not started development of the cargo vehicle. Firefly could meet the cargo requirement using a medium-life rocket called Beta. That vehicle, though, just started development and had a projected first launch no earlier than mid-2024, NASA noted.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...