Sunday, November 18, 2018

Forever Young: NG-10 Cygnus Departs Earth, Bound for the International Space Station

An Antares rocket launches the NG-10 Cygnus spacecraft into orbit. It is set to rendezvous with the International Space Station on the morning of Nov. 19, 2018. Photo Credit: Sean Costello / SpaceFlight Insider

The early-morning skies of the U.S. central eastern coast were lit up with yellowish fire and a crackling roar as the latest Antares rocket, carrying the S.S. John Young Cygnus resupply spacecraft, tore brightly and loudly like a burning torch into the heavens.

Northrop Grumman’s NG-10 mission lifted off at 4:01 a.m. EST (9:01 GMT) Nov. 17, 2018, from pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The 139-foot (42.5-meter) tall Antares rocket carried Cygnus and its 7,400 pounds (3,250 kilograms) of water, food, supplies, equipment and experiments into orbit on a journey to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Cygnus spacecraft, named in honor of NASA’s longest-serving astronaut who passed away earlier this year, was recently mated to the Antares rocket in the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) not far from the 0A launch pad.

Following the spacecraft’s encapsulation in the 32.5-foot (9.9-meter) payload fairing, the rocket was taken out of the HIF and towed the short distance to the pad, where it was erected at 5 a.m. EST (9:00 GMT) Nov. 13.

Saturday’s early-morning countdown proceeded almost without issue. Within 90 seconds so from the planned liftoff, there was chatter in the launch countdown audio that several items were not able to be confirmed via telemetry, but they were “go” to proceed as there were confirmed via ground sensors, according to mission managers during the post-launch news conference.

When the clock reached zero, the Antares rocket’s two first stage NPO Energomash RD-181 engines ignited. At that moment, a bright glare of light from the launch pad could immediately be seen for miles by the thousands of spectators gathered throughout the coastal area to witness the launch.

A rather nasty storm that lingered off the Atlantic Coast pushed the launch back twice before the skies cleared—and cooled, with temps in the high 30s—and the mission got underway.

After 3.7 seconds, the two engines, producing 864,000 pounds (3,800 kilonewtons) of thrust, lifted the rocket off the pad and sent it soaring into the predawn sky.

The vehicle climbed thousands of feet straight up from the launch area, then began its arc away from the coast to the southeast, setting itself on course for the orbital inclination that would allow it to catch up to the ISS.

At 3 minutes, 30 seconds into flight, the first stage RD-181 engines had burned through more than 40,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and over 21,000 gallons of rocket grade kerosene (RP-1). The main engines cut off, and six seconds later the first stage separated and fell away, as the rocket’s second stage coasted onward at an altitude of about 65 miles (105 kilometers).

Four minutes, 10 seconds into the flight the payload fairing separated, exposing the S.S. John Young to space. This was followed six seconds later by the separation of the interstage. Seven seconds after that, the second stage Castor 30XL solid rocket motor ignited at an altitude of about 83 miles (134 kilometers). The second stage engine burned for about 2 minutes, 44 seconds, pushing Cygnus higher and faster toward orbit.

“The vehicle’s performance ‘up hill’ was right on track and it performed beautifully,” Kurt Eberly, Northrop Grumman’s Vice-President of the company’s Antares Program told SpaceFlight Insider.

About 7 minutes and 8 seconds into the flight, the stage two engine completed its burn, placing the spacecraft in its initial 132-mile (212-kilometer) high orbit. At just over 9 minutes after launch, the S.S. John Young separated from the second stage and began its 2.5-day orbital chase of the ISS.

Nearer the completion of its first orbit (about 90 minutes into flight), Cygnus deployed its twin circular UltraFlex solar arrays to begin supplying power to the spacecraft.

Over the next two days, Cygnus will perform a number of engine burns that will line it up with the space station and bring it to a Joint Targeting Reference Point (JTRP or “Jay-trip) at 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) below the station. Once at JTRP, a “go/no-go” poll is performed by the Mission Control team at Houston to allow Cygnus to perform a set of thruster burns that will bring it closer to the ISS. This process is repeated four times progressively until the spacecraft arrives at a position 36 feet (12 meters) below the station’s Unity module.

At that point, Expedition 57 Flight Engineer Serena Aunon-Chancellor is expected to use the 17.6-meter Canadarm2 to grapple the Cygnus and guide it to the Earth-facing port of the Unity module, where it will be secured to the docking port.

In the days thereafter the Cygnus will be unloaded of its supplies, equipment, and experimental packages. The crew will also unpack a number of CubeSats that will eventually be installed into NanoRacks deployers aboard the station for later deployment. 

The S.S John Young is scheduled to remain berthed to the ISS until February 2019. In the days and weeks before that time, the ISS crew will load the spacecraft’s cargo compartment with trash and unneeded equipment from the station and prepare it for its departure.

Cygnus will then be unberthed using the Candadarm2, and its thrusters will be used to separate it a safe distance from the station. The spacecraft’s engine will then boost it to a higher orbit where it will release the NSLSat 1 CubeSat—a mission to correlate solar activity with electron density in the Near-Earth plasma field.

Following the deployment of CubeSats, the S.S. John Young will be deorbited for a destructive reentry over the Pacific Ocean. Its mission complete, the spacecraft enabled a diverse array of experiments and station operations to begin—and continue.

“Northrop Grumman’s 10th resupply mission to the space station represents a diverse mix of research that has the capacity to benefit life on Earth,” Patrick O’Neil, the International Space Station U.S. National Lab’s senior manager of market communications told SpaceFlight Insider. “More than 10 payloads on this mission are sponsored by the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, looking at everything from tissue engineering, on-orbit manufacturing capabilities, protein crystal growth experimentation and an array of cube satellites to evaluate our planet.”

Northrop Grumman named this mission’s Cygnus spacecraft after astronaut John Young, one of the most venerable and experienced astronauts in NASA’s history. Young, an accomplished naval aviator, was selected as one of the nine astronauts in the second NASA astronaut group in 1962. His first flight was with Gus Grissom on the first Gemini mission, Gemini 3. He next flew with Mike Collins on Gemini 10 in 1966, and with Eugene Cernan and Tom Stafford on Apollo 10, the last Moon landing rehearsal mission, in 1969.

Young got his chance to walk on the Moon as commander of Apollo 16, with lunar module pilot Charlie Duke and command module pilot Ken Mattingly in 1972. He also commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981 with Robert Crippen, and flew one other Shuttle mission, STS-9, on Columbia again, in 1983. 

Young is affectionately remembered for a small act of rebellion, when he managed to smuggle a corned beef sandwich into the pocket of his spacesuit for later dining during his Gemini 3 mission. The incident got Young in some trouble at the time. It is possible NASA included corned beef sandwiches for all the ISS crew as part of the cargo manifest for the S.S. John Young. When asked, NASA was mum on the subject—but remembered it fondly.

“We can’t say if there was a corned beef sandwich on board, but the famous incident shows what an incredible sense of humor John had,” said NASA Wallops’ Carolyn Turner.

Young died on Jan. 5, 2018, at the age of 87. Even after he retired from NASA, Young would still attend meetings for years afterward. Northrop Grumman honored that dedication with this morning’s flight.

Written by: Michael Cole
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