Antares launches the Cygnus cargo spacecraft on the ISS
WASHINGTON – The Northrop Grumman Antares rocket launched the Cygnus cargo spacecraft on February 19, carrying several tons of cargo for the International Space Station.
The Antares 230+ rocket was launched at 12:40 east of 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, during the NG-17 mission. The two-stage rocket launched the Cygnus spacecraft into orbit in almost nine minutes. It is planned that the spacecraft will arrive at the station in early February 21 and will be anchored at the station by the robotic arm Canadarm2.
Named the Northrop SS Piers Sellers in honor of the late NASA astronaut, the Cygnus spacecraft carries nearly 3,800 kilograms of cargo to the station. This includes 1,352 kilograms of crew, 1,308 kilograms of vehicle equipment, 896 kilograms of research and fewer equipment for space travel and computer resources.
The vehicle’s equipment includes a “mod set” to support the future installation of another set of new solar panels at the station to be delivered on the Dragon cargo spacecraft, as well as equipment to deploy debris from Bishop Nanoracks airlock to the station. Research workloads include an experiment to study how tumor cells respond to drug treatment, and testing a new Japanese lithium-ion battery designed to be safer and operate over a wider range of temperatures and in a vacuum.
Northrop made changes to Cygnus to allow it to reboot the station. “We have optimized the Cygnus configuration to remove some secondary structural elements to maximize cargo load, as well as provide full fuel load, providing new operational capabilities,” said Steve Crane, vice president of civil and commercial space at Northrop Grumman Tactical Space. Systems during a press briefing on February 18th.
With the help of a new gimbal engine, Cygnus will be able to restart the orbit of the station from the berth, tasks that are currently performed by engines on the Russian segment of the station or docked cargo ships Progress. Kerin said current plans call for a launch in April that will change the station’s speed by 0.5 meters per second.
It is planned that Cygnus will remain at the station for about 100 days with disengagement in late May.
Geopolitics of Antares
The launch came amid rising tensions in Eastern Europe as Russia recruited troops near the border with Ukraine. President Joe Biden said on February 18 that he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine “in the coming days” and target its capital, Kyiv.
Invasion and reaction to it could create long-term problems for the Antares missile. The first stage of the rocket was built in Ukraine by the State Design Bureau “Southern” and the machine-building plant “Southern Mash” and operates on the engine RD-181 of the Russian NGO “Energamash”.
“We are obviously monitoring the situation and hope it can be resolved,” said Kurt Eberley, director of space launch programs at Northrop Grumman Launch and Missile Defense Systems, at a Feb. 18 briefing.
The company already had all the components needed for the next two Antares launches, scheduled for August and early 2023. “The best mitigation we can have is to buy ahead,” he said. “Hopefully this will repel us until this tension eases and we can’t get back to normal.”
Failure to launch Antares in 2014 led Orbital ATK – later acquired by Northrop Grumman – to use the Atlas 5 United Launch Alliance rocket for two Cygnus missions in 2015 and 2016, working to bring Antares back into flight. This time, it will not be an option if Antares is unavailable, as the ULA has previously said it has sold all the remaining Atlas cars while preparing to introduce the Vulcan rocket.
Status of the cargo contract
NG-17 is the sixth mission under Northrop’s contract for Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) 2 with NASA. This contract is currently in effect through the NG-19 mission in early 2023.
NASA is in the process of renewing its CRS2 contracts with both Northrop Grumman and SpaceX, said Joel Montalbana, head of NASA’s ISS program, at a briefing on February 18. He declined to offer details of these extensions due to current procurement, but said it would include missions until 2026.
“We buy it a few yards away, working with different suppliers,” he said. “I hope that next month we will be able to get more public information.”
This extension will not apply to Sierra Space, which has not yet completed the first of its CRS2 missions as it continues to develop its Dream Chaser car. Montalbana said NASA expects the first Dream Chaser cargo mission in late 2022 or early 2023.
Speaking at the FAA conference on commercial space transportation on February 16, Janet Cavandi, president of Sierra Space, said the first launch is expected in the first quarter of 2023. She did not specify whether this schedule corresponds to the work on the Dream Chaser itself or the ULA Vulcan rocket that will launch it.
Currently, NASA has no plans to hold a new tender for commercial freight contracts. The agency released Feb. 3 a procurement document formally known as a “justification other than full and open competition” regarding plans to extend existing CRS2 contracts. The document concludes that there are no other “certified off-road vehicles for the delivery of cargo to the ISS” in the current market.
As part of a market survey in 2021, NASA received statements of opportunity from three other companies that offered to offer freight services to the station. One was from Boeing, which failed to bid on the original CRS2 contract using a cargo version of its commercial CST-100 Starliner crew car. A NASA document that edited specific details of the proposals argued that Starliner’s ability to deliver cargo under pressure to the station was “significantly lower” than the current contract requirement of 2,500 pounds per mission. He added that Starliner reconstruction will also be needed to transport the goods.
NASA has also received statements of capabilities from two developers of small launch vehicles, Astra Space and Firefly Aerospace. NASA has concluded that the Astra’s payload is also well below the requirements of the CRS2 contract and that the company has not started developing the truck. Firefly can meet cargo requirements using a medium-life missile called the Beta. However, this car has just begun development and the first launch was scheduled no earlier than mid-2024, said NASA.
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