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Cygnus and Falcon Spread Their Wings

The first of three Falcon 9s supporting Cygnus missions heads towards the ISS as part of the NG-20 mission.
Credit: David Diebold

On January 30th, at 12:07:15 PM Eastern Time, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 lofted the Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft as part of the NG-20 mission in a historic first for both Commercial Cargo providers. This mission is the first of a 3 mission agreement between the two companies to continue to resupply the International Space Station and comes after the original Antares 230+ vehicle flew its final mission during NG-19. This interim arrangement is expected to last until 2025 with the replacement Antares 330 set to debut that year.

This agreement comes in the aftermath of a massive geopolitical shift following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, destruction of the Yuzhmash plant and sanctions being placed on the Russian aerospace industry. This left Northrop Grumman, who purchased components from a variety of manufacturers across the world, without the facilities and parts to produce any further Antares 230+ vehicles, necessitating a new solution in the form of purchasing rides on Falcon 9 to fulfill their NASA contract.

Falcon 9’s Merlin engines power the launch vehicle and spacecraft away from LC-40.
Credit: David Diebold

Northrop Grumman’s NG-20 mission was launched by SpaceX booster 1077, making its 10th flight – having previously supported missions such as Crew-5 and CRS-28. Following liftoff from LC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 12:07 PM Eastern Time, the vehicle pitched down range to the 51.6 degree heading required to rendezvous with the ISS. Following a successful first stage burn, the booster conducted a flip and boostback burn, powering the first stage back towards a landing at LZ-1. The spacecraft was deposited in its initial parking orbit roughly 8 minutes after liftoff, and separated at roughly T+15 minutes. 

Booster 1077 ignites a single Merlin engine for the final landing burn, arresting its velocity and sideslip to stick the landing.
Credit: Derek Newsome

NG-20’s Cygnus spacecraft is named the S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson after the former NASA astronaut who was tragically killed in a plane crash in May, 2001. This follows a tradition established by Northrop Grumman on the first flight of Cygnus, naming their spacecraft after pioneers and innovators in aerospace. Due to some unique requirements of the spacecraft, SpaceX made modifications to their Falcon 9 system to support launch operations – installing a sizable hatch on the fairing of the vehicle to enable vital “late load” cargo to be installed onboard just hours before launch, a hallmark of Cygnus operations. Previous missions which have flown on Atlas V have not had this ability.  

Clearing the newly built crew tower, NG-20 heads for space.
Credit: Brandon Berkoff

Tuesday’s mission is the first time since 2017 that a Cygnus spacecraft launched from the Cape. The NG-7/ORB-7 mission, carrying spacecraft S.S. John Glenn, was the last of three such missions that relied upon the launch services of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V 401 rocket, following increased Station cargo demand and launch vehicle availability issues with the Antares rocket in the aftermath of the ORB-3 failure. 

Falcon 9 goes supersonic, forming a vapor cone around its fairing.
Credit: David Diebold

Onboard the Cygnus is more than 8,200 pounds of science and supplies for the crew living and working aboard the ISS. Some of the primary science and research supplies include a surgical robot from the Virtual Incision Corporation, a semiconductor manufacturing device from Redwire Space and a metal 3D printer from the European Space Agency. It will arrive at the space station Thursday, February 1st after a 40 hour transit. The spacecraft will be grappled by astronaut Jasmin Mohgbeli, operating the Station’s robotic arm before being attached to the Unity module’s nadir port, to be unloaded by the Expedition 70 crew – currently joined by the Axiom Mission 3 short duration crew. 

The NG-20 mission climbs away from Pad 40, the first time since 2017 that a Cygnus has launched from the Space Coast.
Credit: David Diebold

The Cygnus spacecraft is scheduled to remain at the Space Station until May when it will depart the orbiting laboratory at which point it will harmlessly burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Prior to its destruction in the upper atmosphere after departing the ISS, It will host one last science experiment, the Kentucky Re-entry Probe Experiment-2 (KREPE-2) which “will take measurements to demonstrate a thermal protection system for spacecraft and their components during re-entry,” according to NASA. 

Now safely in orbit, the Expedition 70 crew can look forward to a delivery of fresh food, new science, and additional hardware allowing the International Space Station to sustain its ongoing missions in pursuit of pioneering human spaceflight firsts.

Edited by Scarlet Dominik

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