ISS Roundup: Cygnus NG-20, Axiom Mission 3, and Progress MS-26

by Aaron McCrea

This month, the International Space Station (ISS) has seen a flurry of activity, from experiments to vehicle arrivals and departures. Multiple resupply missions by Cygnus and Progress have kept the crew of Expedition 70 healthy onboard the Station. Meanwhile, a private mission from Axiom headed back to Earth with the first-ever all-European commercial crew, and SpaceX Crew-8 prepares to launch to the ISS in the coming days.

Northrop Grumman’s 20th Cygnus mission (NG-20) was berthed to the Station’s Unity module on Feb. 1, beginning the month off with a strong start. NG-20 was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Jan. 30 at 12:07 PM EST (17:07 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Experiments on the ISS are actively gaining new insight into possibilities that were never attainable on Earth. Cargo resupply vehicles like Cygnus help carry new experiments and supplies to the Station, supporting these advancements.

Launch profile of NG-20 on Cygnus’ first Falcon 9 mission. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

Cygnus’ usual ride to space, the Antares 230+ rocket, has been retired. Therefore, Northrop Grumman has purchased three flights on Falcon 9 until the newer Antares 330 rocket is expected to enter operation. On this mission, SpaceX added a special door to Falcon 9’s fairing at the request of Northrop Grumman. This was used for late-load cargo on Cygnus, which allows time-sensitive payloads, such as fresh food or animal test subjects, to be loaded within 24 hours of liftoff.

Once Cygnus reaches the ISS, it has to be caught by Canadarm2 since it is not able to autonomously dock to the Station. Jasmin Moghbeli, a NASA astronaut onboard the ISS, controlled the manual capture using Canadarm2 while Loral O’Hara monitored Cygnus’s movements to make sure all continued as expected. The spacecraft was officially berthed to the ISS at 4:59 AM EST (09:59 UTC) on Feb. 1.

The Cygnus spacecraft S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson flying the NG-20 mission was named in honor of the late astronaut, Dr. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson who passed away in 2001 in a private plane crash. She was a medical doctor and pilot as well as a NASA astronaut. Robertson was scheduled to fly to the ISS in 2002 before the accident took her life. 

NG-20 brought up 3,748 kilograms of cargo to the Station. This includes supplies, equipment, and multiple new scientific payloads to be used by the crew. These experiments include a metal 3D printer, manufacturing of semiconductors in microgravity, atmospheric re-entry modeling, an Earth-controlled surgery robot, and the growth of cartilage tissue in microgravity.

Cygnus NG-20 arrives at the ISS over mountainous terrain. (Credit: Jasmin Moghbeli)

Cygnus can stay docked at the Station for 180 days. During this time, it may provide additional services such as boosting the ISS back to its average altitude of 400 kilometers. When it is time to leave the Station, Cygnus will be loaded with trash and sent into a planned atmospheric re-entry where it will safely burn up. 

On Feb. 7, Axiom Mission 3 departed the ISS after an 18-day stay. This first-ever all-European commercial crew returned to Earth in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Freedom on Feb. 9 at 8:30 AM EST (13:30 UTC) off the coast of Daytona, Florida in the Atlantic Ocean. 

The four crewmembers — Michael López-Alegría, Walter Villadei, Alper Gezeravcı, and Marcus Wandt — worked on over 30 scientific experiments that were of national importance to their respective countries. While they were on the ISS, they worked alongside the crew of Expedition 70 who have been on the Station since Sept. 27, 2023.

Splashdown and recovery of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Freedom on Feb. 9, 2024, carrying the Axiom Mission 3 crew. (Credit: Axiom Space)

The success of the Axiom missions shows the value of private flights to space stations in low-Earth orbit. The progress of these missions will only bring more commercialization to space and will in part lead to privately owned space stations apart from the ISS in the future. 

On Feb. 13, Progress MS-24 was undocked from the ISS at 02:09 UTC. This was the 177th flight of a Progress spacecraft. Progress MS-24 helped support the Expedition 70 crew with fuel, nitrogen, water, and over 1,500 kilograms of dry cargo. It burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere slightly over three hours after undocking at 05:16 UTC.

The removal of Progress MS-24 from Zvezda’s aft docking port made room for Progress MS-26. MS-26 launched on Feb. 15 at 03:25 UTC on a Soyuz 2.1a from Site 31/6 of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The vehicle then docked to Zvezda on Feb. 17 at 06:06 UTC carrying fuel, oxygen, nitrogen, water, food, and supplies as the Station was 420 kilometers over the South Pacific Ocean. This was the 179th flight of a Progress vehicle. 

Progress MS-26 arriving at the ISS over a cloudy Earth. (Credit: NASA)

Many experiments were sent up on both Cygnus and Progress at the beginning of February, enabling a large amount of work to be done onboard the ISS. Several interesting experiments have come from this month, but a few stand out as possible future breakthroughs.

One of the most compelling studies is the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research on Varying Mission Durations (CIPHER). This experiment uses bio-monitors and common medical tests to pay close attention to the crew’s health. This will lead to a better understanding of physical and psychological changes from weeks to years in space.

These bio-monitors and studies on the astronauts will look into better ways to preserve bone density in microgravity, among other subjects. For example, fluid in the brain shifts differently in space than on Earth and the heart does not have to fight against gravity to pump blood through the whole body in microgravity. Because of this, CIPHER will look into cardiovascular and brain health to make microgravity a more understood area.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques wearing CIPHER bio-monitors. (Credit: NASA)

The next two experiments use fiber optics in different ways for the betterment of humanity. First is the experimental Flawless Space Fibers-1. This project is working on making extremely high-quality optical fibers that can only be created in microgravity. Techniques learned from these initial tests will push the known limits of communication speed through fiber optic cables. This has the potential to be mass-produced to increase the speeds of communications here on Earth and beyond. 

The Lumina dosimeter utilizes fiber optics in a novel way. The experiment is using fiber optics to monitor real-time radiation doses the astronauts are receiving. As radiation is absorbed by the fibers, they will darken slightly, reducing their transparency. Light will then be passed through the fiber, measuring the radiation dose based on how much is blocked by this darkening.

 With the knowledge gained from these tests, communications have a chance to get even faster and scientists will be able to more accurately predict a radiation dose for future missions, like Artemis, for the safety of astronauts.

SpaceX Crew-8 rehearsing launch day inside of the crew access arm at LC-39A. (Credit: SpaceX)

Looking forward, SpaceX is targeting March 3 at 10:53 PM EST (03:53 UTC on March 4) for the launch of Crew-8 to the ISS. This will be SpaceX’s 12th crewed mission to the Station and the eighth operational NASA commercial crew flight. This mission will launch on a Falcon 9 out of historic LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

NASA’s Commander Matthew Dominick, Pilot Michael Barratt, Mission Specialist 1 Jeanette Epps, and Roscosmos’s Mission Specialist 2 Alexander Grebenkin will fly to the ISS aboard Crew Dragon Endeavour. They will work on experiments onboard the Station with a mission duration of around six months before SpaceX Crew-9 will relieve them from their stay in low-Earth orbit in mid-August.

(Lead image: The waxing gibbous Moon is seen above the horizon of Earth from the ISS. Credit: NASA)

Related Articles