Cargo ship heads to space station with supplies and “tidbits” for crew

A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket carrying a freighter loaded with 8,200 pounds of equipment and supplies bound for the International Space Station took off from the east coast of Virginia early Monday and began a two-day rendezvous.

The Antares 230+ missile’s two Russian-built RD-181 engines, which were a day late due to a fire alarm that forced the company to briefly evacuate its control center, ignited at 5:32 a.m. EST, pushing the missile away from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket, using a first stage built in Ukraine and powered by two Russian-built rocket engines, climbs away from Wallops Island, Virginia and launches a cargo flight into a space station.  Northrop Grumman and Firefly Aerospace are developing a new all-American missile to replace the Antares after its final flight in March next year.  / Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now

A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket, using a first stage built in Ukraine and powered by two Russian-built rocket engines, climbs away from Wallops Island, Virginia and launches a cargo flight into a space station. Northrop Grumman and Firefly Aerospace are developing a new all-American missile to replace the Antares after its final flight in March next year. / Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now

Curving to the southeast, the rocket accelerated smoothly as the Ukrainian-built first stage consumed propellant and lost weight, climbing directly into the plane of the space station’s orbit. Nine minutes after launch, the Cygnus freighter was released to fly on its own.

“It was a spectacular launch,” said Jeff Arend, system engineering and space station integration manager. “We are pleased that Cygnus is on its way to the ISS.”

One of the cargo ship’s two solar panels had apparently failed to go into service as planned a few hours after launch, but NASA didn’t provide details. Still, Northrop Grumman reported that the ship will still have enough power to carry out its rendezvous with the space station.

If all goes well, the freighter will overtake the lab complex early Wednesday, pulling up to about 30 feet and holding on as Nicole Mann, who operates the lab’s robotic arm, latches onto a grab.

At that point, flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston will take over arm operations and pull the Cygnus in to dock at the Earth-facing port of the station’s central Unity module.

On board the freighter: 3,608 pounds of crew supplies, 1,873 pounds of research equipment, 2,375 pounds of space station hardware, and 317 pounds of computer components and spacewalking equipment, including hardware needed for upcoming excursions to upgrade the lab’s solar power system.

The manifesto also includes some “well-deserved treats for the crew,” Arend said.

“They’ll have their usual menu, but also some special requests like peanut butter, olives, different cheeses, and even pumpkin spice cappuccino,” he said. “And the team also loaded some fresh fruit — apples, blueberries, oranges — and some ice into the freezers.”

The launch marked the penultimate Antares 230+ flight as Northrop Grumman and Firefly Aerospace develop a new missile in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the imposition of US sanctions and the subsequent termination of RD-181 deliveries for use in the Ukraine-built first stairs.

The first stages used for Monday’s launch and another Antares flight, scheduled for March next year, were ready when hardware deliveries were halted after the Russian invasion.

In the transition to a new rocket, Northrop Grumman plans to launch three Cygnus flights with SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets before the all-American Antares 330 debuts in late 2024.

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