Northrop Grumman launches space station supply mission

A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket rocketed away from the east coast of Virginia on Saturday, blasting a Cygnus freighter into orbit with more than four tons of supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station.

The rocket’s two Russian-made RD-181 first-stage engines sprung to life at 12:40 p.m. EST, accelerated to full thrust, and gently pushed the vehicle away from pad 0A at Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS ) on NASA’s Wallops Island. , Virginia, Flight Test Center.

Moving away to the southeast, the first stage, designed and built in Ukraine, quickly emerged from the dense lower atmosphere and fell, switching to a solid-fuel second-stage engine built by Northrop Grumman for the remainder of the ascended into orbit. .

A Northrop Grumman Antares 230+ rocket lifts off from Wallops Island, Va., carrying a Cygnus freighter loaded with more than 8,000 pounds of supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station.

NASA television

Five and a half minutes later, the Cygnus freighter separated from the exhausted second stage and the freighter departed past the International Space Station, on course to complete a two-day automated rendezvous at 4:35 a.m. Monday.

At this point, astronauts Raja Chari and Kayla Barron, who operate the station’s robotic arm, will hook onto a grappling hook so ground controllers in Houston can remotely pull the spacecraft into dock with the Unity module of the laboratory facing the Earth.

On board for Northrop Grumman’s 17th Space Station Resupply Run: More than 8,300 pounds of equipment and supplies, including nearly a ton of science gear.

“Over the course of a year, there are hundreds of experiments on the ISS, and during the average six-month increment, we may have about 300 investigations going on,” said Jennifer Buchli, deputy chief scientist. . “This flight brings about 40 scientific investigations for NASA, the US National Lab and our international partners.”

Also on board: more than two tons of station supplies, spare parts, computer equipment, solar panel mounting hardware, crew clothing and fresh food, including avocados, tomatoes, grapefruit, pears, blueberries and ice cream.

In a first for the Cygnus program, the spacecraft was modified to allow its main engine to raise the station’s altitude, a service normally provided by the engines of Russian modules and Progress supply ships.

“We’ve optimized the Cygnus configuration to remove some secondary structural elements to maximize cargo loading and also allow full fuel loading which enables new operational capability, reboost,” said Steve Krein, vice president of Northrop Grumman. for civil and commercial space. .

While the space station typically flies at an altitude of around 260 miles, enough atoms and molecules are present in the extreme upper atmosphere to slightly slow the football field-sized spacecraft, causing it to lose of altitude as he runs at nearly five o’clock. miles per second. Periodic rocket launches are required to maintain the desired orbit.

Kerin said the Northrop Grumman spacecraft is now equipped with a “gimbalized delta velocity motor, or DVE, which will allow Cygnus to provide reboost, or orbit elevation, capability for the station during dockside operations. The first maneuver of this type is expected in April.

Unlike SpaceX’s all-American Dragon freighter and Falcon 9 rocket, the Cygnus and its Antares 230+ booster include major components built in other countries. The RD-181 engines are built by NPO Energomash in Russia and other major first stage components are supplied by KB Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash in Ukraine.

Asked about the company’s contingency plans given the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kurt Eberly, Northrop Grumman’s space launch director, said “we are obviously monitoring the situation, and I hope that ‘it can be solved’.

In the meantime, “we have all the hardware we need for all the missions we have under contract with NASA,” he said. “So that includes NG-17, 18 and 19. All of that material is here at Wallops. And so hopefully that will help us until those tensions can ease and we can get back to a procedural normal operation.”