NG-11 Cygnus, S.S. Roger Chaffee, brings the science to ISS

by Chris Gebhardt

Roughly 37 hours after launching from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Virginia, Northrop Grumman’s NG-11 Cygnus spacecraft has arrived at the International Space Station with 7,600 lbs (3,442 kg) of supplies.

Grappled by Station astronauts Anne McClain (NASA) and David Saint-Jacques (CSA) using the Canadarm2, the S.S. Roger Chaffee will now be berthed to the Station’s Unity (Node-1) Nadir port.

Cygnus will remain at the Station until July, after which it will undertake a planned multi-month free flight test.

Cygnus in orbit; Antares deploys satellites:

The NG-11 Cygnus mission continues a busy resupply month for the Station and its 6 person crew, marking the second major resupply flight to arrive this month with one more to follow.

Previously, the Progress MS-11 Russian resupply craft launched to and arrived at the International Space Station on 4 April.

The might of Antares captured from remote camera of Brady Kenniston at the NG-11 launch. (Credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2)

Cygnus will soon be joined on orbit next week when SpaceX’s CRS-17 cargo Dragon launches on NET (No Earlier Than) 26 April at 05:55 EDT (0955 UTC).

For the NG-11 Cygnus, the craft’s arrival at the Station followed a little less than 37 hours of orbital phasing that began with a flawless launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island on Wednesday atop NGIS’ Antares 230 rocket.

(A detailed NG-11 rendezvous burn, thruster firing, and approach plan is available here for download on L2.)

After lifting off the pad, the Antares rocket pitched southeast to take Cygnus on its multi-minute ride to orbit.

After orbit insertion and deployment, Cygnus successfully deployed its two power generating solar arrays and began a series of burns to raise its orbit from the initial 205 km injection orbit up to the roughly 409 km orbit of the International Space Station.

For Cygnus’ ride to orbit, the Antares rocket’s Castor 30XL second stage’s mission did not end with the deployment of Cygnus but rather continued on with the deployment of 61 small satellites – including 60 ThinSats for the Virginia Commercial Space Authority and one NASA-sponsored 3U CubeSat called Student Aerothermal Spectrometer Satellite of Illinois and Indiana CubeSat (SASSI2).

The solid propellant Castor 30XL upper stage of Antares, seen here in processing for the NG-12 mission later in 2019. (Credit: Brady Kenniston)

The ThinSats and SASSI2 were deployed within the first few hours of the Castor 30XL’s arrival on orbit and after Cygnus was a safe distance away.

Science delivery:

With Cygnus now successfully at the International Space Station, astronauts will, over the next few hours, connect the vehicle to the Common Berthing Mechanism on the nadir port on the Unity (Node-1) module.

From there, they’ll take detailed photographic surveys of Cygnus to document its condition before opening the hatches between the two craft.

The first order of business will be to extract the time-sensitive scientific experiments that must be performed quickly – a first for Cygnus.

Afterward, the crew will remove the rest of the Space Station supplies from Cygnus.

In all, four of the five international Station partners have utilization/science experiments being delivered aboard the S.S. Roger Chaffee.  The only partner that has no experiments or equipment on Cygnus is Russia.

For the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Cygnus is delivering the Bio-Analyzer and Vascular Aging experiments.

Bio-Analyzer is a video game console sized tool Station crewmembers will use to test and analyze blood, saliva, and urine; it requires just a few drops of bodily fluid from which it can determine blood cell counts (among other test results) in a matter of a few hours.

The unit will eliminate the need for crewmembers to freeze and store samples before testing.

Meanwhile, the Vascular Aging experiment will use ultrasound, blood samples, oral glucose tolerance tests, and wearable sensors to study aging-like changes that occur to astronauts in space.

One of three CSA experiments focusing on the effects of weightlessness on blood vessels and the heart, this experiment specifically seeks to find links between these effects and bone health, blood biomarkers, insulin resistance, and radiation exposure.

Back on Earth, better understanding the connections between these elements of the human body as it is affected by weightlessness can be used to help treat vascular aging in patients.

For the European Space Agency (ESA), Cygnus transported the Acoustic Diagnostics, Nutritional Monitoring for the ISS, Gravitational References for Sensimotor Performance:  Reaching and Grasping (GRASP) Perspective USB Key, Biolab, and ICE Cubes (commercial research) experiments to the Station.

ICE Cubes are small, modular containers that slot into a rack, around the size of a microwave oven, in the Columbus laboratory and transmit experiment data back to Earth – thus providing commercial European science opportunities on the Station.

Meanwhile, GRASP Perspective USB Key will add to the GRASP experiment, which investigates “how the central nervous system integrates information from different sensations (e.g. sight or hearing) and encoded in different reference frames in order to coordinate the hand with the visual environment,” states a NASA experiment description.

The experiment specifically seeks to better understand “if, and how, gravity acts as a reference frame for the control of reach-to-grasp.”

Additionally, Cygnus also carries two JAXA (Japan) experiments, including Cerebral Autoregulation and JSSOD #11.

According to NASA’s Station experiment archive, the Cerebral Autoregulation JAXA experiment will test whether the brain’s self-regulating blood flow capability is enhanced by microgravity.

The experiment will be conducted via non-invasive tests will “measure blood flow in the brain before, during, and after a long-duration spaceflight, and provide new insights into how the brain safeguards its blood supply in a challenging environment.”

JSSOD #11 is CubeSat deployer that will be placed outside the Station via robotics work.

By far, NASA has the bulk of the equipment on Cygnus, including GLACIER, a glovebox freezer, Slingshot CubeSat deployment components, Centrifuge, and resupply kits for ongoing experiments.

Experiment wise for NASA, Cygnus NG-11 is carrying Astrobee, BioNutrients, MISSE-11, MISSE-FF, Plant Habitat, Veggie Ponds Validation, ACT-T-10, and Rodent Research 12, among others.

Rodent Research 12 mission patch. (Credit: NASA)

According to NASA, “ACE-T-10, or Advanced Colloids Experiment-Temperature-10, investigates the growth kinetics, microscopic dynamics, and restructuring processes in ordered and disordered structures such as colloidal crystals, glasses and gels.”

Real-world applications for this experiment include using colloidal particles to build new materials for food, drugs, and electronic devices.

Meanwhile, Rodent Research 12 – Tetanus Antibody Response by B cells in Space (TARBIS) – seeks to understand spaceflight’s effects “on the function of antibody production and immune memory,” notes the archive.

The experiment will fill in gaps in knowledge that currently exist for how the immune system responds to an infection or illness (or foreign body invasion) in space.

Mice will be used for this experiment as their immune systems closely parallel that of humans.

Annotated rendering of an Astrobee free flyer showing key sensing and human interface components, including the 6 cameras: Hazard Camera, Science Camera, Navigation Camera, Speed Camera, Perching Camera and Dock Camera. (Credit: NASA)

Rodent Research 12 will help improve the effectiveness of vaccines and therapies for treating disease and cancers on Earth.

Finally, Astrobee consists of three, free-flying, cube-shaped robots “designed to help scientists and engineers develop and test technologies for use in microgravity to assist astronauts with routine chores and give ground controllers additional eyes and ears on the Space Station,” notes NASA.

The astrobees are powered by fans and vision-based navigation, can perform crew monitoring as well as sampling, logistics management, and can accommodate up to three investigations at a time.

Once all experiments and cargo are removed from Cygnus, the Station crew will reload the craft with equipment and cargo no longer needed.

Cygnus is scheduled to depart the Station in July to begin several months of free-flight testing of news systems before reentering Earth’s atmosphere and burning up over the ocean.

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