As Northrop Grumman Corp.’s NG-15 Cygnus spacecraft arrived safely at the International Space Station (ISS) on Monday morning, the Bethpage, N.Y.-headquartered firm has confirmed that Thales Alenia Space of Turin, Italy, will fabricate an additional two Pressurized Cargo Modules (PCMs) for a pair of forthcoming missions. Current plans are for the two additional Cygnuses—designated NG-18 and NG-19—to launch atop Antares 230+ boosters from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., no sooner than 2023.
They form part of an extension to Northrop Grumman’s second-phase Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) contract with NASA, which originally called for “at least six” Cygnus missions to be launched by 2024, four of which have now been completed or are underway.
But Cygnus’ impressive history extends back more than a decade. In December 2008, Orbital Sciences Corp. finalized the first-phase CRS1 contract with NASA, totaling $1.9 billion, which required eight dedicated cargo missions to haul 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) of payloads, equipment and supplies to the ISS through 2016.
The first “demonstration” mission (ORB-D) of Cygnus launched successfully to the station on 18 September 2013 and after a delay caused by a data-link anomaly the spacecraft and its 1,300 pounds (590 kg) of cargo was “berthed”—via the Canadarm2 robotic assets—at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Harmony node on the 29th.
ORB-D spent three weeks berthed at the ISS, before being removed from the Harmony nadir interface on 22 October and cast adrift, to harmlessly burn up with 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg) of trash in Earth’s atmosphere a couple of days later.
The mission cleared a number of critical milestones which enabled Cygnus to move into “operational” cargo deliveries and in January and July of 2014 a pair of flights—designated “ORB-1” and “ORB-2”—were conducted with flawless perfection. Between them, they delivered 6,420 pounds (2,910 kg) of cargo to the ISS and removed 6,480 pounds (2,940 kg) of old and broken equipment and other no-longer-needed materials.
Interestingly, the first-ever grapple of a Cygnus with ORB-D was supported by newly-arrived Expedition 37 crewman Mike Hopkins, who was also on duty in the multi-windowed cupola more than seven years later for Monday’s successful capture of NG-15. And with Hopkins having also welcomed ORB-1 in January 2014, he becomes the only person to have participated in the capture and berthing of three discrete Cygnuses during his astronaut career.
But success and failure are alternate sides of the same coin and in October 2014 a liquid oxygen turbopump failure in the Antares booster resulted in the catastrophic loss of the ORB-3 Cygnus—and its entire ISS-bound cargo, totaling 4,880 pounds (2,200 kg)—only a few seconds after liftoff.
As Orbital Sciences Corp. dug into the cause and made requisite improvements to the launch vehicle, contracts were signed with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to fly at least two Cygnus missions atop its venerable Atlas V. And with Orbital having merged in February 2015 with Alliant TechSystems, Inc., to become Orbital ATK, the next mission drew a new nomenclature: “OA-4”.
Unlike its predecessors, OA-4, which launched in December 2015, marked the first flight of the “Enhanced” Cygnus, which benefits from a larger PCM—some 4 feet (1.2 meters) taller than earlier ones—and could deliver an 53-percent-larger haul of payloads, as well as boasting lightweight and higher-efficiency UltraFlex solar arrays.
The latter changed Cygnus’ appearance both figuratively and literally, as the UltraFlex arrays are fan-shaped, as opposed to the straight-wing design of the earlier version. And with a total payload upmass of over 7,300 pounds (3,350 kg), OA-4 marked the heaviest-ever Cygnus at that time, with 40 percent more cargo than earlier missions.
Longevity was an added bonus in the Enhanced Cygnus, for when OA-4 finally returned to Earth in February 2016 it logged over 75 days in space, of which more than 71 were spent berthed at the ISS. This was almost double the achievement of any of its predecessors.
A second Atlas V-boosted Cygnus (OA-6) followed in March 2016, before Antares returned to operational service the following October to fly the out-of-numerical-sequence OA-5 mission. A third (and so far last) launch atop an Atlas V followed in April 2017 with OA-7, which achieved the original CRS1 target of 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) of cargo delivery after seven missions, rather than eight.
This was thanks principally to the increased uplift capacity of the mighty Atlas V and the expanded payload envelope of the Enhanced Cygnus. An “extension” program with two additional Cygnus flights—designated “OA-8E” and “OA-9E”—had been added to the CRS1 contract in August 2015 to bridge the gap before an anticipated second-phase CRS2 contract came online and these two missions flew in November 2017 and May 2018.
In the meantime, early in 2018 Northrop Grumman Corp. concluded its acquisition of Orbital ATK and from the tenth flight in November of that year—which incidentally marked the first Cygnus to log over a hundred days on a single mission—flights were correspondingly renamed with an “NG-xx” designator. An eleventh mission (NG-11) followed in April 2019 and formally closed out the CRS1 commitment.
By this stage, however, Cygnus had already won a slice of NASA’s CRS2 contract, with an expectation that it would provide “at least six” more missions between 2019 and 2024. It was one of three partners (alongside SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp.) in this second-phase ISS resupply contract, but was alone among them in achieving its first CRS2-contracted flight on schedule with the launch of NG-12 in November 2019.
Of those six baselined missions, three have already been completed. NG-12 was followed in February 2020 by NG-13 and, just last October, by NG-14, named in honor of fallen STS-107 astronaut Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla. A fourth was launched last week, with the NG-15 Cygnus robotically captured yesterday morning by Canadarm2 and Expedition 64 astronauts Soichi Noguchi and Mike Hopkins.
And looking ahead, the NG-16 hardware is on track to be launched this coming July, with an expectation that both the Northrop Grumman-built Service Module and the Thales Alenia Space-built PCM for the mission will be shipped to Wallops in May. After that, the NG-17 mission—the sixth and last CRS2-contracted Cygnus—will fly next year.
With Northrop Grumman having yesterday confirmed that Thales Alenia Space will provide PCMs for the NG-18 and NG-19 flights, this extends the CRS2 contract to at least eight missions for Cygnus alone.
“For the past decade, we have been a valued partner on Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus program, showcasing innovative technologies that allow work and life on the International Space Station (ISS), while fostering scientific breakthroughs,” said Walter Cugno, vice president of the Exploration and Science Domain at Thales. “We are confident that this new contract will be an important milestone for the future deep-space cargo and exploration missions.”
Indeed, Thales Alenia Space has contributed to no less than 50 percent of all pressurized modules on the space station and with Northrop Grumman is an integral partner in the development of the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) for the Lunar Gateway, which will be placed around the Moon later this decade.
Including this week’s arrival of the NG-15, Cygnus missions have delivered more than 90,000 pounds (40,000 kg) of equipment, payloads and supplies to dozens of ISS expedition crews and their voluminous PCMs have afforded ample room to “take out the trash” at the end of their missions.
Research investigations delivered via Cygnus have run the gamut from life sciences to technology and crew supplies have ranged from food, water and clothes to computer spares, space suit components and spare parts for the ISS toilet.