Final preparations are underway for the launch of Northrop Grumman’s 20th commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station (NG-20), currently set to launch on January 29th 2024. This mission’s Cygnus spacecraft, named after astronaut Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson, will be delivering food, supplies, equipment, and science experiments to the Space Station’s Expedition 70 astronauts 254 miles above the Earth’s surface.
Some of the primary goals of the experiments onboard is to simulate situations that may arise during future long-duration space missions. One such experiment includes the first operation of a surgical robot that can be remotely operated from Earth. Developed by Virtual Incision, the miniature surgical robot – named MIRA – will be performing several “surgery-like” tasks to compare in-flight data on tasks performed in the Space Station’s microgravity environment against the same tasks performed on Earth to inform the designs of future robotic designs as long-duration spaceflight becomes more common and the need for potential emergency procedures becomes more likely.
Additionally, NG-20 will contain an experimental scaffold made of biological material that mimics DNA that can potentially regenerate cartilage tissues and maintain healthy cartilage in space. Microgravity has been shown to hasten the degeneration of cartilage while hampering its regenerative abilities, making astronauts especially prone to diseases like arthritis. In addition to mitigating the development of health issues for those in microgravity for long periods of time, potential breakthroughs in therapeutics for cartilage regeneration can also benefit those suffering from degenerative disease on Earth.
Also among experiments being delivered on NG-20 are KREPE-2, an inexpensive Thermal Protection System (TPS) to collect data during atmospheric reentry that otherwise can’t be replicated in a laboratory setting on Earth, as well as an autonomous semiconductor manufacturing platform that is expected to limit the amount of gravity-induced defects in computer chips. The payload will also be delivering the European Space Agency’s new Metal 3D printer.
This mission will be marking a slight departure from the norm with Northrop Grumman’s other resupply missions. Cygnus typically hitches its ride to the International Space Station aboard Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket. Due to Antares’ first stage being produced in Ukraine by state-owned aerospace manufacturer Pivdenmash and its engines built by Russian manufacturer NPO Energomash, production of the now-retired Antares 230+ series was jeopardized and later ceased due to the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine. As a result, Northrop Grumman has entered an agreement with Firefly Aerospace to construct the next generation Antares 300 series that relies on entirely domestic components, currently set to take flight for the first time in 2025.
The last Antares flight of the occurred during NG-19 in 2023, and Northrop Grumman has contracted with SpaceX for two additional Falcon 9 launches of Cygnus after NG-20 until the Antares 300 series is ready to fly. Although a break in established operations, this isn’t the first time Cygnus has had to find a new ride into space. Previously the spacecraft has also flown three times atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V, following the explosive failure of an Antares 130 during its Orb-3 mission in 2014.
For now, Antares’ home at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility sits dormant, teeming with hope for the future as Antares prepares for its triumphant return to the launch pad to usher in a new generation of spaceflight.