Northrup Grumman has launched a fresh batch of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station with its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.
On Saturday, February 19th, an uncrewed Northrup Grumman Cygnus spacecraft lifted off on an Antares rocket from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in northeast Virginia. As part of Northrup Grumman’s 17th Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station since 2013, the rocket successfully carried the Cygnus spacecraft and more than 3.7 tons (~8300 lb) of cargo into orbit.
At 4:44 AM EST Monday, February 21st, Cygnus finished its autonomous rendezvous with the ISS and the station’s robotic Canadarm2 arm – operated by NASA astronaut Raja Chari – grabbed the hovering spacecraft and ultimately installed it on a berthing port later that morning. Prior to its arrival, NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Kayla Barron trained on the US Destiny laboratory module’s robotics workstation to prepare for the capture operation.
On February 22nd, ISS astronauts began the process of unpacking Cygnus, which brought with it an array of supplies, snacks, scientific investigations, and critical materials needed to support over 250 experiments aboard the ISS. That list of experiments includes medical research, technology development, space safety work, and plant life investigations. In one investigation, cancer cells from breast and prostate cancer will be treated with MicroQuin, a novel cancer treatment drug. This investigation will allow tumors to be treated in a microgravity environment, allowing researchers an opportunity to better understand and characterize their structure, gene expression, cell signaling, and response to the treatment.
The NG-17 mission also carried a modification kit that will pave the way for the installation of the new set of upgraded solar arrays. The second batch will be launched no earlier than (NET) May 2022 on SpaceX’s CRS-25 Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft. Additionally, NASA says that Cygnus NG-17 “[included] other components [needed] for the successful functioning of astronaut life on the space station, such as a trash deployer and acoustic covers for the waste management system.” (NASA)
In general, NG-17 was loaded with:
• 2,980 pounds (1,352 kilograms) of crew supplies
• 2,883 pounds (1,308 kilograms) of [station] 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
While attached to the ISS, Cygnus will also be responsible for raising the altitude of the space station for the first time in its history. This will be the first time since the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011 that an American spacecraft helps maintain the space station’s orbit – a task Russia has exclusively handled for more than a decade. “This Cygnus vehicle has been modified to [use some of its own propellant] to reboot ISS. We’ve done a test prior to this with Cygnus, but this will be our first real use of this capability to actually re-boost the station. And it gives us another way to do so, in addition to the Russian Zvezda thrusters or the Russian Progress cargo spacecraft capabilities,” stated Dina Contella, NASA’s ISS operations integration manager.
Cygnus will remain attached to the International Space Station for the next three months and is set to depart in May. Once detached from the ISS, the spacecraft – operating a bit like a space tug or orbital transfer vehicle – will deploy a number of cubesats. Finally, the fully expendable spacecraft will dispose several thousand pounds of trash when it reenters and burns up in Earth’s atmosphere later this year.