Orbital ATK order nine additional Cygnus PCMs for ISS CRS missions

by Chris Bergin

The role of the Cygnus spacecraft in resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) saw its long term future gain a boost on Monday, with a contract agreement between Orbital ATK and Thales Alenia Space for nine additional Pressurized Cargo Modules (PCM). The news comes as the next Cygnus awaits on news for when it will rejoin forces with the Antares rocket.


The Cygnus vehicle consists of an advanced service module and a PCM. The service module incorporates avionics, power and propulsion systems from Orbital’s flight-proven LEOStar and GEOStar satellite product lines.

Based on NASA’s requirements, its task is one of lofting large amounts of crew supplies, scientific experiments and equipment, spares parts and other essential cargo to the ISS.

2016-07-11-151504The Cygnus PCM was developed via Thales Alenia Space’s experience with the ISS, as seen with their MPLM (Multi-purpose Logistics Module) which rode numerous times with Shuttle to the orbital outpost – which was built by the company on behalf of the Italian space agency for NASA.

The company also played a major role with the ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) Cargo Carrier, built for the European Space Agency (ESA). Thales Alenia Space was also a key player in the Columbus laboratory and prime contractor for Node 2, Node 3 and the Cupola – all now on orbit with the ISS.

Cygnus began its demonstration mission in September 2013, remaining berthed at the ISS until late October.

Following this, operational missions were launched successfully in January and July 2014. However, the third operational launch in October 2014 ended in failure after a turbopump exploded in one of the first stage engines of its Antares rocket.

2015-08-07-122716With Antares grounded, Orbital purchased two rides for the Cygnus from United Launch Alliance.

The missions – OA-4 and OA-6 – were successfully launched by the veteran Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in December 2015 and March 2016, respectively.

The OA-5 Cygnus is set to return to its regular rocket, the Antares, this year. However, Orbital ATK first needs to ensure the upgraded rocket is ready to fly.

The company is yet to provide a firm launch date, following a static fire test at the end of May. Orbital ATK noted the static fire test data analysis is yet to be completed, along with a requirement for final trajectory shaping work.

“Final trajectory shaping work is also currently underway, which is likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe,” noted Orbital ATK to NASASpaceflight.com last month, with a new date expected to be released imminently. It is possible the launch date could slip deeper into the year.

While those preparations continue, Orbital ATK is already looking to the future.

2016-07-11-151736With their CRS obligations added to by the extension of the Station’s lifetime via the CRS2 requirements, a contract has been signed to provide nine additional PCMs for upcoming Cygnus missions.

The announcement was made at the Farnborough International Airshow in Farnborough, UK.

“Thales Alenia Space has been one of our most reliable and strategic partners in the area of human spaceflight,” said David W. Thompson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Orbital ATK.

“The pressurized cargo modules developed by Thales Alenia have worked flawlessly to establish Cygnus as a flagship product for cargo resupply missions and as a research platform for science experiments that enable deep space exploration.

2016-07-11-151806“The enhanced pressurized cargo module flown on our last two missions also enabled Cygnus to carry over 50 percent more cargo to NASA, further demonstrating the versatility and flexibility that Cygnus offers to our customers.”

The PCM has evolved since it first flew into space, increasing in size and capability.

The contract also notes a new configuration that incorporates a number of upgrades as compared to the standard PCM.

These include a lighter and more efficient solution for storing and constraining the cargo inside the module.

2016-07-11-151841This allows for an increase in the mass and volume of cargo amount able to be transported to the orbiting laboratory.

In addition, the new design confirmed the ability to accommodate cargo bags with both irregular shape and stiffness.

The improved PCM also accommodates an increased number of middeck lockers as compared to the existing module design which enhances the capability to transport science experiments.

“We are truly proud of the renewed trust that Orbital ATK has put in us,” added Walter Cugno, Vice President, Exploration and Science of Thales Alenia Space.

2016-07-11-152041“The signing of this latest contract represents the continued vote of confidence from a valued customer in our engineering and our facility that provides pressurized cargo modules to re-supply the International Space Station. We look forward to continuing this successful relationship for many years to come.”

“This new contract not only guarantees the continuity of our role as global leaders within the field of space infrastructures but it also underlines the distinctiveness of our know-how and of our skills which we will continue to make available in the organization of future adventures beyond the Space Station in order to provide support for space exploration.”

(Images: Orbital ATK, NASA and L2 including render from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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