NG-11 Successfully Launches to ISS from Virginia
The NG-11 mission is underway following the successful launch and berthing of the Cygnus resupply spacecraft, the SS Roger Chaffee, to the International Space Station. Wednesday’s launch was spectacular from the press site, just 2.8km (1.8 mi) away from Pad 0A at NASA Wallops and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). It was sunny, albeit cold and blustery as well.
After a two day orbital ballet, the Cygnus spacecraft arrived just 10 meters (30 ft) abeam the space station early Friday morning. Astronaut Anne McClain used the ISS’s Canadarm (robotic arm) to capture the spacecraft. Hatch opening is expected to occur around 1:00pm Friday.
After the launch on Wednesday, there was a Post-Launch press conference covering the status of the vehicle, unique aspects of the NG-11 mission, and the future of the Antares/Cygnus system and Northrop Grumman’s partnership with NASA.
POST-LAUNCH PRESS CONFERENCE (L-R):
Stephanie Schierholz, NASA Communications, NASA HQ
Joel Montelbano, Deputy ISS Program Manager, NASA JSC
Kurt Eberly, Deputy Antares Program Manager, Northrop Grumman
Frank DeMauro, Vice President of Space Systems, Northrop Grumman
The Antares rocket successfully delivered Cygnus to its target altitude and orbital inclination. Downlink was achieved from 43 of the 60 ThinSat experiments deployed from Antares’s avionics ring. The rest of the ThinSats would begin to downlink in the next few orbits - a normal and expected occurrence. Shortly after, solar array deployment occurred successfully onboard Cygnus. The storage lockers carrying RR-12, the experiment with 40 mice onboard (or “micestronauts,” as we have been calling them), have equipment to sense the environmental conditions of the enclosure. This data is reading healthy as well. In addition, the new late-loading procedure at the launchpad, utilizing a mobile clean room and pop top nose cone, worked exactly as expected.
During this two day rendezvous, the Cygnus autonomously performed a “target altitude burn,” making its own orbital adjustments to reach the ISS. As yet another first for the Cygnus program, this capability will prove Cygnus’s ability to rendezvous with little assistance from ground controllers. This is a crucial step for the next block of the vehicle, which will begin flying in the CRS-2 contract with NASA this autumn.
The rest of the press conference focused on what is next for Cygnus, Northrop Grumman, and NASA. With 11 flights to the ISS under its belt, Cygnus has delivered ±30,000kg of payload to the ISS. With each flight, the payload capabilities have expanded, with NG-11 being the heaviest flight to date. This flight also brings Northrop Grumman’s first Cygnus contract with NASA to a close. The next contract, CRS-2, will begin with NG-12 in October 2019, the first flight of Cygnus’s new version. The new block will be slightly heavier, carry more payload, stay in space longer, and have more mass flexibility, going in tandem with upgrades to the Antares rocket as well. The launch manifest, mass, and trajectory can be changed within just hours of launch with the late-loading procedure. It is such an effective procedure than the numbers given in the press kit may actually change between the media obtaining them and the launch itself. Kurt Eberly reassures us that we will be made aware of the new information! In addition, G-throttling, or reducing thrust in the rocket to prevent excessive G-forces during ascent, will no longer be necessary due to the heavier Cygnus, and will allow both of the vehicles a greater range of capabilities.
Several reporters asked of future plans, and if different kinds of experiments or missions were on the drawing board. Though focused chiefly on CRS and ISS resupply missions, Northrop Grumman is open to building on its legacy in space exploration, having developed the Apollo Lunar Module and receiving the contract to build the lunar lander for the later-cancelled Constellation program. With NASA’s new goal of reaching the Moon by 2024 and a Lunar Gateway space station, Northrop Grumman is open to participation.
At the moment, however, science experiments are the primary payloads NASA is interested in transporting onboard Cygnus, with particular attention to student experiments and payloads. As stated in a prior article, there has never been a better time for researchers and young people to become involved in space science. Joel Montelbano, Deputy ISS Program Manager, says of student participation: “We’re available for it. When it’s ready, we’ll fly it.”
Images and videos courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise.
Cover Image - Cygnus attached to the station’s Canadarm. (Photo: NASA)