Mission NG-20 accomplished: the Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft has reached the International Space Station

The Cygnus S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson cargo spacecraft captured by the Canadarm2 robotic arm (Image NASA TV)
The Cygnus S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson cargo spacecraft captured by the Canadarm2 robotic arm (Image NASA TV)

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft, launched last Tuesday, January 30, has just reached the International Space Station and was captured by the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Astronaut Loral O’Hara, assisted by his colleague Jasmin Moghbeli, will soon begin the slow maneuver to move the Cygnus until it docks with the Station’s Unity module after about two hours.

Tomorrow, the International Space Station crew is scheduled to open the Cygnus spacecraft’s hatch and at that point, the cargo will be slowly brought to the Station. The NG-20 mission is almost accomplished because the Cygnus spacecraft can’t land and when it comes back into Earth’s atmosphere it will disintegrate. For this reason, it will be used to get rid of components that failed or that can’t be used any longer on the International Space Station: all of that will be loaded on the Cygnus and will disintegrate along with it. In the meantime, it will be used to raise the Station’s orbit via its thrusters.

The Cygnus called S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson will leave the International Space Station in about a couple of months. In these cases, a tentative date is decided for the departure of a cargo spacecraft which, however, can be modified because it also depends on other jobs with higher priority.

The next mission could begin in July 2024 but the date will not be established with precision for some time. It will be the second of at least three missions involving the use of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket while waiting for the new version of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket to be ready.

For these missions, SpaceX uses a modified protective fairing to allow cargo to be transported in the Cygnus space freighter practically until the last moment before launch. The modification consists of a sort of door in the fairing that allows access to a controlled environment, in the sense that it’s structured to avoid contamination. That’s important, for example, because the Cygnus’ docking mechanism to the International Space Station is very sensitive. Even dust could cause problems during the maneuvers in the contact of the rings that seal the spacecraft’s connection to the Station.

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