Northrop Grumman Corp.’s last Antares 230-class booster is set to rise into the post-sunset darkness of Wallops Island, Va., at 8:31:11 p.m. EDT Tuesday, carrying the next research-laden Cygnus resupply craft to the International Space Station (ISS). Named in honor of astronaut Laurel Clark—deep-sea diver, Navy flight surgeon and crew member on shuttle Columbia’s final voyage in early 2003—the NG-19 Cygnus is carrying over 8,200 pounds (3,700 kilograms) of equipment, experiments, payloads and supplies for the incumbent Expedition 69 crew and will arrive at the station early Friday morning.
Like all previous Cygnus missions, NG-19 honors a figure who pioneered human spaceflight. In addition to Clark, previous Cygnus honorees included Challenger’s Ellison Onizuka, Columbia’s Rick Husband and Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla, moonwalkers Gene Cernan, John Young and Al Bean and Apollo 1’s Roger Chaffee.
Added to that list are five other shuttle flyers, legendary “Original Seven” Mercury and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) astronaut Deke Slayton, “Hidden Figures” mathematician Katherine Johnson, former NASA Deputy Administrator James “J.R.” Thompson and Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) astronaut selectee Robert Lawrence. Most recently, the NG-18 Cygnus—launched last November—offered a nod to America’s first woman in space, astronaut Sally Ride.
Clark thus becomes the third STS-107 veteran to be honored with a Cygnus name. “We bonded over our shared Midwestern roots and fond connection to Scotland,” said Clark’s former classmate, astronaut Dan Tani, who now serves as Northrop Grumman’s director of business development.
“I remember, as a new mother herself, Laurel naturally took on a maternal role in our class,” Tani added. “Always looking out for everyone else and making sure we were all doing well.”
Hardware for the NG-19 mission began to come together in early April when the Cygnus spacecraft was transported to Wallops for fueling. Last month, its payloads were installed and it was encapsulated in the bullet-like fairing of the Antares 230+ rocket, before rolling out to Pad 0A last Friday.
Current plans call for NG-19 to be robotically captured by the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm at 5:54 a.m. EDT Friday. Berthing coverage at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node is set to begin at 7:30 a.m.
It is expected that the cargo ship will remain aboard the complex until late October. And its suite of experiments will run the gamut from studies of neuron cell cultures to Japanese children’s artwork and from ongoing fire safety investigations to ionospheric plasma physics research.
Sponsored by the ISS National Lab and led by Principal Investigator Joanna Stanicka of Axionis Therapeutics, Inc., of Boston, Mass., the Neuronix experiment will demonstrate the formation of three-dimensional neuron cell cultures in microgravity and test a neuron-specific gene therapy. Such therapies may have important applications to treat patients with paralysis or neurological disorders, like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, but the three-dimensionality of modelling needed to test them is not available in terrestrial gravity.
Cell cultures derived from induced pluripotent stem cells, frozen prior to launch, will be thawed and inoculated into BioCell chambers aboard the ISS. The experiment will culminate with the cultures being “fixed” in formaldehyde, up to 14 days after initiation, before the samples are stored in the Minus-Eighty-Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS (MELFI) until their return to Earth.
NASA’s Glenn Research Center (GRC) of Cleveland, Ohio, is providing the sixth and final iteration of its Spacecraft Fire Safety (SAFFIRE-VI) experiment to investigate the processes of combustion, smoke behavior and flame-spreading characteristics and their impact upon spacecraft habitability. On five prior Cygnus missions between June 2016 and January 2021, SAFFIRE observations were conducted after the cargo ship had departed the ISS and the crew was exposed to no danger.
Its experiments were conducted inside self-contained modules, measuring 3 feet (0.9 meters) x 5 feet (1.5 meters), divided into a sensor-filled avionics bay, high-definition video cameras and signal-processing hardware and a combustion chamber in which samples were burned.
On SAFFIRE-I in June 2016, a piece of Solid Inflammatory Boundary at Low Speed (SIBAL) cloth—a cotton blend on a fiberglass substrate—was ignited by a hot wire, marking the largest in-space fire ever conducted.
Five months later, in the final phase of the OA-5 Cygnus mission, the envelope was pushed further by burning nine samples, including SIBAL and Plexiglas and Nomex specimens. The latter typically are used on spacecraft for windows and as fire-retardant materials.
Higher fuel-flow velocities were explored in the SAFFIRE-III burns in June 2017 and in May 2020 SAFFIRE-IV began the first of three final missions to run at lower atmospheric pressures of 8.2 psia and a 34-percent oxygen level. This represents significantly higher concentrations than conditions found on Earth.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is providing the Multi-Needle Langmuir Probe (m-NLP) to monitor plasma densities in the ionosphere. Its results are expected to benefit efforts to understand and predict the degradation of trans-ionospheric radio signals—including those used in modern global navigation infrastructures, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS)—and it will be installed onto the Bartolomeo platform on Europe’s Columbus lab for 15 continuous months of operation.
“The probe can take ionospheric density measurements at unprecedented spatial resolution,” said m-NLP co-investigator Lasse Clausen of Norway’s University of Oslo. “This means that we can investigate plasma structures down to sizes of a few meters and study their generation, evolution and decay.”
An Exploration Potable Water Dispenser (PWD), sponsored by NASA and developed by Houston, Texas-based Leidos-CMC, will evaluate advanced sanitization and microbial growth reduction systems. It is equipped with data-gathering, telemetry and self-monitoring capabilities and can be taken into and out of a state of “dormancy”, an ability that will be an essential pre-requisite for long-duration deep-space missions.
The Exploration PWD continues the heritage of a legacy PWD, delivered to the station in 2008, and it can dispense hot water, remove iodine and interface directly with existing crew food and drink bags. If successful, the new system may replace the older PWD in the station’s galley. Also aboard NG-19 is a memory card containing digital works, including pictures and poetry, from more than 13,000 students across 74 Japanese schools.
Weather conditions at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., are currently trending around 80-percent-favorable for tomorrow night’s launch attempt. Following the departure of a weak area of high pressure there remains a possibility of an afternoon, sea-breeze, pop-up shower or thunderstorms during countdown operations, with cumulus clouds forming the primary concern for launch.
Earlier today, Expedition 69 astronauts Warren “Woody” Hoburg and Frank Rubio—the latter of whom recently passed his 300th day on the ISS, as he heads to become the first U.S. astronaut to log a full year in orbit—prepared for their roles on Friday morning, when they will grapple the “Space Ship Laurel Clark” using the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm. Hoburg will be prime, with Rubio as backup.
“The duo completed another robotics practice session of Cygnus berthing and capture in the morning,” noted NASA on Monday, “followed by a practice of grapple procedures in the cupola using the station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, in the afternoon.” Rubio also worked to consolidate food stores ahead of NG-19’s arrival.
Tomorrow’s launch will also be the eighth and final flight of Northrop Grumman’s in-service Antares 230+ booster since November 2019, as well as the 13th and last outing of the 230-series, which entered service in October 2016. Although both boosters are powered by a pair of Russian RD-181 core stage engines, the uprated 230+ boasts structural enhancements for greater flexibility during first-stage ascent and continuous 100-percent thrust.
Last August, Northrop Grumman contracted with Firefly Aerospace of Cedar Park, Texas, to build an Antares first-stage upgrade, known as the “330”. Targeting a maiden launch in early-to-mid-2025, the Antares 330 will be powered off the pad by seven Firefly-furnished Miranda engines, generating 1.6 million pounds (730,000 kilograms) of thrust, translatable to double the current lifting capacity of the 230+.
In the spring of 2022, NASA contracted to purchase six future Cygnus missions, to be launched “through 2026”, with the Antares 330 supporting several of these flights. Following President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Russia halted deliveries of its RD-181 engines, leaving only enough supplies for last November’s NG-18 and tomorrow’s NG-19 Antares launches.
To permit uninterrupted Cygnus operations between NG-19 and the first Antares 330 mission—currently slated for NG-23 in early-to-mid-2025—Northrop Grumman has contracted with SpaceX for three Falcon 9 launches of NG-20 later this year and NG-21 and NG-22 in the spring and fall of 2024. This will not be the first time that a booster other than Antares has lifted a Cygnus: between December 2015 and April 2017, three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets lifted three cargo missions to the ISS.Missions » ISS » COTS » CYGNUS »