As the S.S. John Young (NG-10) Cygnus mission came to an end today, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is readying the final elements for the next Cygnus mission, NG-11 – which is scheduled to launch No Earlier Than 17 April 2019 on a flight that will complete NGIS’s CRS1 commercial resupply services contract with NASA.
The NG-11 mission will also debut several new features/operations for Cygnus, some of which will fulfill NASA requirements for the upcoming six CRS2 contracted resupply missions.
Completing the CRS1 contract:
NG-11 will represent the fourth and final flight as part of the extended CRS1 contract NASA signed with Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS).
The original CRS1 (Commercial Resupply Services 1) contract between Orbital (which then became Orbital ATK and then NGIS) called for seven Cygnus flights to the ISS; however, delays to the CRS2 contract awards and a need to ensure continued cargo access to the Station caused NASA to extend the CRS1 contract with NGIS for an additional four flights.
Those were originally known as OA-8E, -9E, -10E and -11E, with the “E” signifying the “Extended” nature of missions in the CRS1 contract. When Northrop Grumman acquired Orbital ATK last year, the official mission designations for OA-9E (which was berthed to the Station at the time), -10E, and -11E missions changed to NG-9, -10, -11 respectively – dropping the “E” designation.
With the end of the CRS1 contract upon them, Frank DeMauro, Vice President and General Manager, Space Systems Division, NGIS, reflected on this milestone to NASASpaceflight’s Chris Gebhardt in a one-on-one interview.
“When we first started launching missions, the Antares test flight, and then the demo mission, thinking back to that time and [how we looked ahead], the idea that we would ever come to the end of the CRS1 contract just seemed so far away,” said Mr. DeMauro.
“And here we are within a couple of months of launching that mission and within a few more months of completing the cargo part of that mission. It’s just been an extremely special program to be a part of.”
For Mr. DeMauro, the approaching culmination of CRS1 comes after several years of managing the Cygnus Program for Orbital/Orbital ATK/NGIS.
“On the one hand, it’s hard to put into words just how special it is. On the other hand, I do implore the team to just think about what they’ve accomplished, think about how they’re supporting the human exploration of space, now in Low Earth Orbit, but hopefully in the future using Cygnus-derived vehicles out in cislunar space and beyond.
“We made this program be personal. We always care [about] who the real customers are. And those are the crewmembers on the ISS that we are supporting them with our supplies and delivering science so they can perform their work and demonstrate the capability of the Station as a national lab.
“It’s something that’s near and dear to so many of us. But we keep focused on the mission at hand. We take the time to reminisce and enjoy what we’ve accomplished, but every mission is special. Every mission is critical. And to be able to stand in front of the team and look out and see the faces of the folks who take such pride in the work they do, it’s very special for us.”
While the work on CRS1 and completing that contract with NG-11 is very much the team’s focus right now, other departments of NGIS are hard at work on the missions to follow that are part of the CRS2 contract to ensure Station resupply efforts through at least 2024.
NGIS has six contracted Cygnus flights, NG-12 through NG-17, as part of CRS2, and NASA has already started mission activation and planning for three of those flights: NG-12, -13, and -14.
All of those CRS2 flights are on Antares rockets and will use an Enhanced Cygnus to deliver pressurized cargo to the Station.
Thus far, NASA has not yet expressed interest in or need for a larger pressurized Cygnus launch on an Atlas V or the external payload-only version of Cygnus, both of which were mandated by the CRS2 contract application guidelines.
Interestingly, Mr. DeMauro stated that NGIS – based on conversations with NASA – expects only Antares-based Enhanced Cygnus missions for the duration of the CRS2 contract.
“We are planning for [NASA] to continue turning on Antares missions throughout the current expectation for CRS2. Of course NASA has the capability of turning on different missions, but they haven’t turned on any of the unpressurized cargo missions or the larger cargo delivery missions. So far its Antares missions, and we expect that to continue.”
The first CRS2 contract flight, NG-12, is currently targeting a launch in Fall 2019.
NG-11 to test critical CRS2 contract capability:
Before the first CRS2 mission flies, however, the final CRS1 flight will test a critical capability that was mandated as part of NGIS receiving a CRS2 contract to continue flying Cygnus missions to the ISS.
That new capability for Cygnus is late-load of payload items.
Of the two currently operational U.S. commercial resupply craft, only SpaceX’s Dragon is capable of late-load, placing time-critical payloads inside the spacecraft very shortly before launch.
But that will change with NG-11, with Cygnus gaining the ability to support late-load.
“Starting on NG-11, we’re able to load the final cargo within 24 hours of launch, so it’s a big improvement,” noted Mr. DeMauro.
Cygnus itself was not the prohibiting factor for late-load on the first 11 cargo missions (10 contract flights and the Cygnus demo flight). It was actually the payload fairings of Antares and Atlas V, which do not permit access to Cygnus after encapsulation numerous days before launch, that inhibited that capability.
Now, the Antares program has developed a new fairing to permit late-load.
“The fairing has what we call a pop-top, where the nose of the fairing actually unbolts and comes off the fairing, and then there’s additional ground support equipment that gives our team access to open the hatch of [Cygnus], install the cargo, close the hatch, do leak checks, and then reinstall the pop-top part of the fairing, and then continue processing,” related Mr. DeMauro.
The ability to permit late-load at the pad required the development of a moveable platform where the top of Antares’ payload fairing is enveloped in a clean room.
“The fairing top goes into a [clean room], and then we take the pop-top off while we’re in that clean room facility so that when our crew then goes in and opens the hatch we maintain a clean environment,” added Mr. DeMauro.
Advancing the late-load component from the first CRS2 flight to the last CRS1 mission actually came at the request of NASA, which asked NGIS to be able to support the launch of rodents – or mousetronauts as they have lovingly become known – to the Station on NG-11.
NGIS has already practiced this new late-load procedure with a mockup of Antares and the new pop-top fairing.
“In August of last year, we used the Antares simulator with a pop-top fairing and demonstrated the capability of mating up to the mobile platform [clean room], taking off the fairing, doing all that work. And that demonstration went extremely well, and we’ve implemented many lessons learned from that,” enthused Mr. DeMauro.
NG-11 to test Cygnus long-duration on-orbit time:
But the new late-load capability won’t be the only major Cygnus improvement debuting on NG-11.
For some time, NGIS has been planning to increase Cygnus’ on-orbit time to provide greater flexibility/support to the ISS and a better science platform for the commercial community.
As first reported by NASASpaceflight last year, these plans involve Cygnus staying in orbit for up to a year after the completion of its primary ISS cargo mission. And NG-11 will finally test this new capability.
“We’ve implemented a plan to demonstrate several things on [NG-11],” said Mr. DeMauro. “The first is that we are going to be flying a control moment gyro on that spacecraft.”
Presently, Cygnus relies on propellant-fed thrusters to maintain attitude while en route to and after departure from the International Space Station.
The implementation of control moment gyros on Cygnus will allow those gyros to control the orientation of the spacecraft, just like the gyros aboard the Hubble Space Telescope control its orientation.
“We’ll be using that control moment gyro to control the spacecraft’s attitude so that we don’t need to use fuel for that purpose, which is what we do on our standard missions,” added Mr. DeMauro. “By doing that, not only do we prove our ability as a company to implement control moment gyros on our spacecraft, but that enables us to also demonstrate the long duration Cygnus.”
For NG-11, once Cygnus leaves Station, NGIS will control the craft through a series of tests of its control moment gyros as well as the now-standard deployment of CubeSats.
“We will fly Cygnus around for an extended period of time and show the capability that Cygnus has of being in orbit for much longer than the three months [at Station] and then couple of more weeks after that,” noted Mr. DeMauro.
“We’re going to demonstrate the ability to be in orbit for much longer periods of time. And we think that’s going to prove that [government and commercial entities] can plan to use Cygnus as a testbed for various types of hosted payloads.”
The new control moment gyros will also enable Cygnus to return to the ISS after unberth if needed.
While this capability will not be demonstrated on NG-11, the new gyros will permit Cygnus to perform its cargo delivery mission, be loaded with payloads that either the Station doesn’t have room for or that don’t require crew interaction, released for a period of several-months of free flight, and then return to the Station where the crew can unload those science payloads for data analysis or return to Earth.
In this way, the upcoming NG-11 flight is “a very important mission. On top of our regular delivery of cargo, take away of disposal cargo, we think that demonstration of these additional capabilities are going to go a long way to making us an attractive testbed,” said Mr. DeMauro.
The NG-11 mission is currently slated to launch on 17 April 2019 at 16:46 EDT (2046 UTC) from Pad-0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia.