A Cygnus supply ship is grappled by the space station’s robotic arm Monday. Credit: NASA TV / Spaceflight Now
A commercial Cygnus cargo freighter from Northrop Grumman arrived at the International Space Station Monday, delivering more than 8,000 pounds of supplies and a new U.S. capability to reboost the altitude of the complex independent of Russian rocket thrusters.
The automated Cygnus cargo ship pulled within 40 feet, or 12 meters, of the space station early Monday, close enough for the station’s robotic arm to reach out and capture the supply freighter at 4:44 a.m. EST (0944 GMT). NASA astronaut Raja Chari operated the Canadian-built robot arm to grapple the Cygnus spacecraft.
The mission lifted off Saturday from Wallops Island, Virginia, aboard a two-stage Antares rocket. The Cygnus spacecraft deployed from the Antares launcher into a preliminary orbit, then used its own engine to approach the space station, culminating in Monday’s arrival.
The resupply flight is the 17th cargo delivery to the space station by a Cygnus spacecraft since 2013. The spacecraft has a pressurized cargo compartment supplied by Thales Alenia Space of Italy, and a service module produced by Northrop Grumman.
The commercial cargo transportation system was designed and developed by Orbital Sciences under contract to NASA. Orbital Sciences is now part of Northrop Grumman, which owns and operates the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.
Ground controllers took command of the space station’s robotic arm Monday to berth the Cygnus cargo ship to the Unity module. After confirming equal pressure between the station and Cygnus, astronauts will open hatches to begin unpacking more than 8,000 pounds of supplies packed inside the ship’s cabin, including food, experiments, and parts for the station’s life support systems.
Cygnus capture confirmed.
The International Space Station’s robotic arm, under the control of astronaut Raja Chari, has snared the Northrop Grumman cargo freighter after a nearly two-day flight from a launch pad on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow)
The Cygnus spacecraft will remain attached to the station for three months. The supply ship is scheduled to depart in May, when it will fly a safe distance from the space station to perform more experiments and deploy CubeSats before re-entering the atmosphere and burning up over the Pacific Ocean.
Its final purpose will be to dispose of several tons of trash packed by the space station astronauts.
Dina Contella, NASA’s operations integration manager for the International Space Station program, said cargo missions like the Cygnus resupply flight are “critical for supplying the science investigations that make the International Space Station the incredible research facility that it is.
“Of course, the cargo flights also provide supplies for the crew and critical maintenance teams and hardware to make the changes necessary for the ISS to support new science,” Contella said in an interview broadcast on NASA TV following launch Saturday.
“This particular flight of research that’s coming up, for example, includes investigations looking at the effects of a drug on cancer cells,” she said. “We’ve got investigations on skin aging, plant growth. We’re looking at new hydrogen sensors. This science provides direct benefits to those on Earth as well for future human spaceflight crews and future spaceflights.”
The mission, known as NG-17, also carried a modification kit to prepare for the arrival of a new pair of upgraded solar arrays at the space station on a future SpaceX cargo flight. There’s also a trash disposal system that will allow garbage to be jettisoned out of the station’s Nanoracks commercial airlock.
“Regular cargo missions are the life blood, really, of ISS’s supply chain to continue research, especially as we’re continuing to extend station operations through 2030,” Contella said.
This Cygnus mission will also debut a new capability to reboost the altitude of the space station, a service that has been exclusively provided by Russia since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.
“This Cygnus vehicle has been modified to provide a capability to reboot ISS, so to use some of its propellants in the vehicle itself,” Contella said. “We’ve done a test prior to this with Cygnus, but this will be our first real use of this capability to actually reboost the station. And it gives us another way to do so, in addition to the Russian thrusters or the Russian Progress cargo spacecraft capabilities.”
The Northrop Grumman cargo ship has a gimbaled delta velocity engine to make the reboost maneuver possible, officials said.
The Cygnus supply freighter that arrived Monday was the second cargo ship to pull into port at the space station in less than a week, following the successful docking of Russia’s Progress MS-19 spacecraft at the complex Thursday.
The Cygnus mission hauled more than 8,300 pounds (about 3,800 kilograms) of cargo to the space station. Here’s a breakdown of the NG-17 cargo manifest:
• 2,980 pounds (1,352 kilograms) of crew supplies
• 2,883 pounds (1,308 kilograms) of vehicle hardware
• 1,975 pounds (896 kilograms) of science investigations
• 200 pounds (100 kilograms) of unpressurized cargo
• 132 pounds (60 kilograms) of spacewalk equipment
• 77 pounds (35 kilograms) of computer resources
NASA has multibillion-dollar contracts with Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corp. to ferry cargo to and from the space station. Northrop Grumman’s two resupply contracts cover 19 operational cargo missions through 2023, with the next two Antares/Cygnus launches scheduled in August and in April 2023.
The Cygnus spacecraft flying on Northrop Grumman’s NG-17 mission is named the “S.S Piers Sellers” in honor of a space shuttle astronaut and NASA climate scientist who died from cancer in 2016.
Along with spare parts and equipment to keep the space station running, the Cygnus cargo freighter is packed with more than a ton of scientific research gear.
The experiments on the NG-17 mission include an investigation studying engineered human skin cells to evaluate how they change in microgravity. Deterioration of skin tissue is a normal part of aging. Similar changes occur in the human body in space, but they happen much more quickly.
Researchers will study the skin cells in space in hopes of using them as a model to assess products to protect against skin damage from aging back on Earth.
The Cygnus mission also carried to the space station a combustion experiment to assess the flammability of different types of materials that could be used on future space missions, such as human expeditions to the moon and Mars.
There is also a technology demonstration experiment to evaluate new sensors that can better detect hydrogen generated as a byproduct of the space station’s oxygen generation system.
Another experiment will look into using hydroponic, or water-based, and aeroponic, or air-based techniques to grow plants on the space station. Astronauts so far have used conventional soil to grow vegetables on the station, but hydroponic and aeroponic systems could offer advantages in size and mass for future missions into deep space.
The Cygnus spacecraft also launched with a Japanese tech demo of a new lithium-ion battery that could be used on future space missions, plus CubeSats for deployment from the space station module and outside the Cygnus cargo ship itself in the next few months.
The KITSUNE spacecraft is based on a six-unit or 6U, CubeSat platform. Credit: Mitsui Bussan Aerospace
One of the CubeSats, named KITSUNE, was developed by the Kyushu Institute of Technology, Mitsui Bussan Aerospace, and other Japanese institutions, along with contributions from Paraguay. It launched inside the Cygnus spacecraft’s internal cabin, and will be transferred into the airless vacuum of space through an airlock for release outside the Japanese Kibo lab module.
KITSUNE, about the size of a small suitcase, will demonstrate a medium-resolution camera and a C-band communications system linked with a network of amateur radio enthusiasts.
Another CubeSat flown on the space station by the Cygnus spacecraft will test a miniature hyperspectral imager capable of sensing trace levels of gases like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.
The Nanosat Atmospheric Chemistry Hyperspectral Observation System, or NACHOS, satellite is a collaboration between NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Scientists say a fleet of satellites based on technology to be proven by the NACHOS mission could help predict volcanic eruptions, which may release trace amounts of sulfur dioxide before any seismic activity.
The NACHOS sensor could also be used to track air quality and pollution. The imager has enough sensitivity to track the source of trace gases to a specific neighborhood, or even a single power plant, according to NASA.
Another science instrument on the Cygnus mission was developed by the Germany startup ConstellR, which is testing technology for a planned fleet of thermal imaging satellites to monitor global water resources. ConstellR’s longwave infrared camera will be mounted to a bracket outside the space station for its tech demo mission.