NG-14 Cygnus departs ISS, kicks off busy year for Station crew

by Tyler Gray

After a period of over three months in which the spacecraft was berthed to the nadir (Earth-facing) port of the International Space Station’s Unity module, the 14th Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft vacated the vicinity of the orbital outpost on Wednesday after being unberthed and released from the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSMRS), also known as Canadarm2.

Release occurred at 10:11 am Eastern time (15:11 UTC), with NASA astronaut Kate Rubins monitoring the Cygnus spacecraft’s onboard systems during the departure phase.

Named in honor of the late NASA astronaut Dr. Kalpana Chawla, the NG-14 Cygnus spacecraft began its mission on October 2, 2020 with a successful launch on a Northrop Grumman Antares 230+ rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. It followed launch with a rendezvous and berthing at the International Space Station on October 5 after a three-day trip.

With its arrival, Cygnus brought close to 8,000 pounds of cargo, including science experiments, crew supplies, general maintenance equipment, and other personal items.

During its three-month stay at the Station, Cygnus served as an extension to the outpost’s science laboratory, with some experiments being installed inside the spacecraft itself rather than in Station science racks. This capability has been demonstrated on previous Cygnus flights.

Station configuration following the arrival of CRS-21 – credit: NASA

Cygnus was also a witness to a round of crew rotation flights to and from the Station, which included the arrival of Soyuz MS-17 (October 14), the undocking and departure of Soyuz MS-16 (October 21), and the successful docking of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon as part of the Crew-1 mission (November 16).

The CRS-21 Dragon spacecraft also joined Cygnus at the International Space Station on December 7 with the Nanoracks Bishop airlock in its trunk and another bounty of supplies for the Station crew in its pressurized capsule interior.

Now that it’s departed the orbiting laboratory, the S.S. Kalpana Chawla will remain in orbit for a multi-week extended mission, with two research elements onboard that will test emerging network technologies and understand how fires behave in microgravity.

One of those elements is a hosted payload named SharkSat, which was developed by Northrop Grumman to act as a testbed for future uses in fields such as 5G cellular network communications, satellite communications, radar, and autonomous/cognitive systems.

Until Cygnus’ departure from the International Space Station, SharkSat remained in a quiescent state, even since its launch in October 2020. Operations will commence shortly after Cygnus raises its orbital altitude and releases a group of third party CubeSats.

The S.S. Kalpana Chawla and SharkSat will make three passes over the payload’s ground system every day for two weeks at minimum, powering up on each pass. SharkSat’s processor will then accumulate health and status data before forwarding the telemetry to Cygnus for downlink at the spacecraft’s operations center in Dulles, Virginia.

The technologies being tested on SharkSat will offer a path forward for next-generation space systems to have more capability, reduced size, weight and power, and lower costs.

Cygnus will also be carry out an experiment provided by NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center which will purposely start a fire onboard the spacecraft – in a safe, controlled manner, that is.

This experiment is aptly named Spacecraft Fire Experiment-V, or Saffire-V, and is aimed at studying the growth and development of fires in orbiting spacecraft to characterize risk and support development of materials designed to mitigate and/or eliminate the start and spread of a blaze.

Four Saffire experiments have been conducted in microgravity environments since 2016, with all experiments having been flown solely on Cygnus missions. Saffire-V continues these investigations by burning different materials in different configurations from previous tests.

The NG-14 spacecraft will not be the only spacecraft to depart the International Space Station in the month of January. The SpaceX CRS-21 Dragon is currently set to undock and leave the vicinity of the orbital outpost on January 11, with its return to Earth scheduled to take place a few hours after separation from International Docking Adapter-3 (IDA-3).

The ISS will not be without a Cygnus for long after NG-14’s departure, with the NG-15 flight set to resupply the Station with several more tons of cargo. It is slated to launch on an Antares 230+ rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility/Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport no earlier than February 20.

The Station will also play host to more NASA Commercial Crew test flights and operational missions featuring Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, as both companies work to maintain a continuous human presence in space.

Boeing will look to come back from an anomalous uncrewed test flight of its Starliner vehicle in December 2019 with a second uncrewed mission to the Station, acting as a prelude to a crewed test flight in the near future.

The Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) mission is scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V N22 rocket from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41 no earlier than March 29.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is set to launch two operational crew rotation missions to the ISS throughout 2021 using Crew Dragon vehicles, known as Crew-2 and Crew-3, respectively.

Both missions will transport four crew members to and from the Station, with NASA and international agency astronauts flying on each mission.

NASA and SpaceX are currently working towards March 30 and September 1 dates for launch readiness.

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