Launch Roundup: Northrop Grumman prepare the first Cygnus to fly on Falcon 9

by Martin Smith
Cygnus craft, the S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson, is prepared for the NG-20 mission by the Northrop Grumman team. Credit: Northrop Grumman

Recent challenges with weather concerns and the movement of key flights such as USSF-52 and Axiom-3 have impacted Falcon 9 launch dates, not least Starlink Group 7-11 which scrubbed three times and finally launched on Tuesday, albeit with problems on the launch livestream.

SpaceX had two drone ships and the two fairing recovery ships in port for maintenance last week but still managed to launch and land ten Falcon 9s for the first time this month. While this falls a little short of the target of 12 per month to make its ambitious goal of 144 flights this year, there is plenty of time for cadence to increase.

Starlink Group 6-38 was added late last week to the schedule and successfully launched from LC-39A. Notably, this was the first Starlink mission from this pad since last September. Later on Sunday night, Starlink Group 7-12 launched from Vandenberg successfully. The final Falcon 9 launch of the month followed a day later from the pad at SLC-40.

This significant launch was for the NG-20 cargo mission — the first time a Cygnus spacecraft has flown aboard this launcher. This is the first of three missions purchased with SpaceX to fulfil Northrop Grumman’s Phase 2 contract to supply the International Space Station (ISS) until the new Antares 330 vehicle becomes operational.

Northrop Grumman prepared the Cygnus cargo module for launch during this week. On board were several experiments including 3D printing of metal parts and semiconductors in microgravity, remote control robotic surgery, and three new capsules which will gather data on different heat shields as they re-enter the atmosphere.

This week also saw Virgin Galactic send VSS Unity suborbital with another four paying customers.  This is potentially the penultimate flight before operations pause and the company turns its attention to developing and testing its new Delta class vehicle.

Bad weather moved onto the launch site on the Mahia Peninsula delaying the launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron by several days.  However, it did successfully deploy four space situational awareness satellites for its customer Spire which will deliver critical, and timely data for the first time to the satellite community including orbit tracking, collision avoidance, and proximity warnings.

Kinetica 1 | Third flight

The Lijian 1 rocket, also known as Kinetica 1, successfully launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China on Jan. 23 at 04:03 UTC.

Developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), this four-stage solid propellant light launch vehicle has a first stage which seems to be derived from the DF-31 long-range intercontinental ballistic missile. It is capable of placing about 2,000 kilograms into low-Earth orbit.  The payload is currently understood to be five observation satellites made by Minospace heading for a Sun-synchronous orbit. They have been identified as Taijing-1-03, 2-02, 2-04, 3-02, and 4-03.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches 22 more v2 Mini satellites from SLC-4E at Vandenburg SFB

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches 22 more v2 Mini satellites from SLC-4E at Vandenberg SFB. (Credit: SpaceX)

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink 7-11

Starlink 7-11 was originally set for launch on Jan. 18 at 8:04 PM PST (04:04 UTC Jan. 19) from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base but SpaceX stood down from the launch, for reasons not stated. The launch had been rescheduled for Friday, Jan. 19 at 6:15 PM PST (02:15 UTC Jan. 20). However, the launch aborted at T-59 seconds, just after the Falcon 9’s computers took control of the countdown, in what is known as startup.

The mission finally launched on its subsequent attempt on Tuesday, Jan. 23 at 4:35 PM PST (00:35 UTC Jan. 24), despite the SpaceX livestream ending unexpectedly at T-2 minutes and seven seconds causing some initial confusion as to whether the launch had indeed taken place.  The video signal was restored just prior to main engine cut-off (MECO) in time for the entry burn and return journey of booster B1063-16, landing on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You.

B1063 made its launch debut on Nov. 21, 2020, with the launch of Sentinel-6A Michael Freilich, and has also flown the Starlink V1 L28, DART, Starlink 4-11, 4-13. 3-1. 3-4, 4-31, and 2-5, Transporter 7, Iridium-9/OneWeb #19, Starlink 5-13, Transport & Tracking Layer Tranche 0 Flight 2, Starlink 7-4, and Starlink 7-7. All but one flight has taken place from Vandenberg, with Starlink V1 L28 flying from Cape Canaveral.

This flight carried 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites to an orbit inclined 53 degrees to the Equator and marks the seventh SpaceX launch in 2024.

VSS Unity after the Galactic 05 mission (Credit: Jack Beyer, NSF)

VSS Unity after the Galactic 05 mission. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

SpaceShipTwo | Galactic-06

Having achieved six suborbital spaceflights in six months during 2023, Virgin Galactic opened its new year with its eleventh spaceflight to date.

The company announced late last year that it will now fly every quarter and only two or three more times. VSS Unity launched the Galactic-06 mission from Spaceport America in New Mexico on Jan. 26 at 10:40 AM MST (17:40 UST) carrying four more private paying customers on what could yet be its penultimate mission.

The names of the private astronauts were not disclosed for this flight, which was piloted by Nicola Pecile and led by Commander CJ Sturckow.

Following this mission, a Galactic-07 flight is then expected in Q2 and it has not yet been determined if there will be a Galactic-08 mission before Virgin Galactic pauses flights this summer to pivot and focus efforts on developing and testing their new Delta class vehicle.

This new craft will be able to fly six rather than four passengers up to twice a week from 2026 following a test flight which is currently anticipated in mid to late 2025 and is expected to increase monthly revenues tenfold.  The company has flown 32 humans into space so far.

Simorgh | Mahda

Iran’s Simorgh (Persian for ‘Phoenix’) made its first orbital flight on Jan. 28 at 00:02 UTC, placing three satellites into orbit (Mahda, Keyhan-2, and Hatef-1). The Mahda microsatellite is reported to be a research satellite to test the accuracy of satellite deployment, while the Hatef-1 and Keyhan-2 are nanosatellites for communications and global positioning.

Also known as Safir-2, this is a two-stage liquid-fueled rocket, capable of placing up to 250 kilograms into low-Earth orbit. The launch took place from the Imam Khomeini spaceport in the Semnan province of Iran, following a series of failed attempts including a launchpad explosion in the past.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-38

This final Starlink mission of the month from the East Coast launched on Jan. 28 at 8:10 PM EST (01:10 UTC on Jan. 29), launching from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center. This was the first Starlink mission from this pad since last September – these missions have more recently launched from SLC-40, and there have been 42 Starlink missions since then.

This mission successfully placed 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into a low-Earth orbit while the first stage, B1062, landed on SpaceX’s drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas. The booster flew for its 18th time — tying the most flights of an active Falcon 9 booster with B1061.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 7-12

This final Starlink mission of the month from the West Coast launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base near the end of the window on Jan. 28 at 9:57 PM PST (05:57 UTC on Jan. 29), launching from SLC-4E.  Another batch of 22 v2 Mini satellites were on board, bound for the usual trajectory inclined by 53 degrees for this shell of the constellation.

B1075-9 successfully landed on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You, approximately 642 kilometers downrange. This booster has flown Starlink 2-4, Transport and Tracking Layer Tranche 0 Flight 1, Starlinks 2-9, 5-7, 6-20, 7-3, and 7-6 as well as SARah 2 & 3, all from Vandenberg Space Force Base.

KREPE-2 capsule re-enters Earth's atmosphere (illustration - credit: Northrop Grumman)

KREPE-2 capsule re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

Falcon 9 Block 5 | CRS NG-20

This was the first time a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft has flown on a Falcon 9, having previously been launched on the now-retired Antares 230+ rocket. Three Falcon flights have been purchased for these cargo resupply missions to the ISS to bridge the gap until the new Antares 330 becomes operational.

This launch lifted off from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Jan. 29 at 12:09 EST (17:09 UTC) with new SpaceX booster B1072 on its maiden flight, returning to land on the pad at LZ-1 approximately eight minutes following launch. This was its first return to land, having previously performed a series of droneship landings, and the 13th time a booster has reached ten flights.

Dubbed the S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson, the NG-20 craft celebrates the life and achievements of Dr. Robertson who was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1998 and was due to fly to the ISS in 2002 before an untimely death the year prior from injuries sustained in a plane crash.

This was the 20th flight of the Cygnus cargo ship, which is comprised of the US-built service module (based on the GEOStar platform) and a pressurized module by Thales Alenia which is manufactured in Italy and France. As part of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Phase 2 contracts, these three Falcon missions could include some late loading of payloads while the vehicle is still horizontal.

Cygnus separates from Falcon during NG-20 mission (Credit: NASA)

Cygnus separates from Falcon during NG-20 mission (Credit: NASA)

Experiments on board this craft include a miniature surgical robot with two “hands” that will help the team to test the process in microgravity and any time delays of performing remote surgery in space with an operator on the ground. This experiment benefits from advances in miniaturization as well as NASA’s research dating back more than 15 years.  It will pave the way for longer-duration missions where the likelihood that crew members may require medical procedures increases.

The cargo also includes a couple of manufacturing experiments. A metal 3D printer will test the additive printing of small metal parts in microgravity, while a new platform will test thin film semiconductor production in space. The former could enable the manufacture of parts for spacecraft on long-duration missions, avoiding the need to pack or even predict the parts they might need. The experiment is also expected to benefit manufacturing back here on Earth.

Additional experiments include a 3D cell culture which will enable the astronauts to study cartilage degeneration diseases, while the Kentucky Re-entry Probe Experiment-2 (KREPE-2) will further test thermal protection systems during atmospheric re-entry. Building on the KREPE-1 mission, several heat shields will be tested using three different capsules armed with various sensors that will capture data as they go through actual re-entry conditions. The experiment will also inform steps to protect people and structures back on Earth from wildfires.

Electron/Curie | Four of a Kind

Electron’s first mission of the year was rescheduled twice as a precaution to avoid an incoming weather system and, initially, to allow for additional pre-launch checkouts. The attempt to launch on Jan. 28 at 06:15 UTC from Pad B at Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula during a 45-minute launch window was called off a few hours before liftoff.

The launch attempt did succeed on Wed. Jan. 31 at 06:34 UTC, during another 45 minute window, and the first stage was successfully recovered from the ocean.

The deployed payload of four Low Earth Multi-Use Receiver (LEMUR) space situational awareness (SSA) satellites were built by Spire Global Inc. who will also operate them for their customer NorthStar Earth & Space.

Electron is prepared for the Four of a Kind mission

Electron is prepared for the Four of a Kind mission. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

These satellites were placed into a 540-kilometer circular orbit inclined at 97 degrees. When fully operational, Spire will be the first to simultaneously monitor all near-Earth orbits and is making this precise and timely data available as a service to the global satellite community.  This data will include tracking and orbit determination, collision avoidance, and proximity alerts.

As with previous missions, the Electron first stage was recovered by a Rocket Lab marine recovery vessel after a parachute splashdown. Rocket Lab assesses and repurposes certain components, such as reusing its first recovered Rutherford engine last year, and is still working towards re-flying a recovered stage. The company plans to fly 22 missions this year — over double the nine missions flown last year.

This Electron included a silver thermal protection system (TPS) to help the carbon composite structure survive the extreme forces of re-entry from space, as well as an extended carbon-composite shield over the Rutherford engines.

(Lead image: Cygnus craft, the S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson, is prepared for the NG-20 mission by the Northrop Grumman team.. Credit: Northrop Grumman)

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