Spaceflight Insider

NG-15 Cygnus takes aim on the ISS following successful launch

A Wallops Island native takes flight alongside the Northrop Grumman NG-15 Antares launch vehicle, which successfully lofted their Cygnus spacecraft from Pad 0-A at 12:36 p.m. EST, Saturday February 20, 2021. Photo: Theresa Cross, Spaceflight Insider

Northrop Grumman’s NG-15 Cygnus cargo spacecraft has been sent on its way to the International Space Station after soaring into orbit atop an Antares 230+ rocket.

The autonomous NG-15 Cygnus spacecraft, dubbed SS Katherine Johnson, is carrying some 3,700 kilograms of crew supplies and experiments for the space station’s seven-person Expedition 64 crew.

A single, long exposure of the February 20 NG-15 Antares/Cygnus launch captures the arc of departure from NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility. Photo: Steve Hammer, Spaceflight Insider

Liftoff atop the Antares rocket took place at 12:36 p.m. EST (17:36 UTC) Feb. 20, 2021, from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad 0A on Wallops Island, Virginia. The skies were mostly clear for the launch with a temperature right around freezing and a few clouds.

Overall, the Northrop Grumman-built two-stage Antares rocket stands about 42.5 meters tall with a diameter of 3.9 meters. The first stage is powered by two RD-181 engines that consume liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene while the second stage is a Castor 30XL solid rocket motor.

After leaving the pad, the first stage fired for about 3.5 minutes before separating and falling away.

Over the next minute, the payload fairing encapsulating the Cygnus spacecraft separated to reveal the spacecraft and the interstage, which surrounded the Castor 30XL, fell away before the solid motor ignited to burn for about 2.5 minutes to reach orbit.

Finally, at about nine minutes after launch, the NG-15 Cygnus was released to begin its two-day trek to the ISS.

Over the next several hours, the two UltraFlex solar arrays are expected to deploy, giving the vehicle the power it needs on its journey.

Once NG-15 Cygnus reaches the ISS, it’ll autonomously position itself about 10 meters below the Destiny Laboratory module. Expedition 64 Flight Engineer and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins is expected to monitor the spacecraft’s arrival in order to ensure its safe approach.

An overview of what is aboard the NG-15 Cygnus spacecraft. Credit: Derek Richardson / Spaceflight Insider / Orbital Velocity

An overview of what is aboard the NG-15 Cygnus spacecraft. Credit: Derek Richardson / Spaceflight Insider / Orbital Velocity

From there, Expedition 64 Flight Engineer and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi will command the 17.6-meter-long robotic Canadarm2 to grab the spacecraft.

Capture by the robotic arm is expected around 4:40 a.m. EST (09:40 UTC) Feb. 22. Then over several hours, the arm will be commanded to maneuver Cygnus to its berthing location on the Earth-facing port of the Unity module. Berthing is slated for about 6:40 a.m. (11:40 UTC).

“Liftoff!”, of Northrop Grumman’s NG-15 mission, flying a Cygnus spacecraft atop an Antares 203 launch vehicle. Launch occurred at 12:36 p.m. EST, February 20, 2021. Photo: Mark Usciak, Spaceflight Insider

After the space between the station and Cygnus is pressurized, the hatches between the spacecraft will be opened, allowing the crew to begin the long process of unloading the vehicle.

Inside are a multitude of fresh experiments that aim to support future deep space exploration as well as to benefit Earth-based applications. Areas of study range from sleep quality to artificial retina manufacturing to protein crystal growth. Also packed aboard is a selection of fresh food for the orbiting crew to enjoy, including apples, oranges, cherry tomatoes and a selection of cheese.

NG-15 Cygnus is the 15th to be launched under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contracts and the 12th in the larger enhanced configuration.

The spacecraft’s main body is about 6.39 meters long and 3.1 meters wide with a mass of about 3,600 kilograms.

Following a multi-month stay at the space station, NG-15 Cygnus is expected to be unberthed and sent away from the outpost to begin a post-ISS mission involving the deployment of several CubeSats.

Under the current plan, departure from the ISS is expected sometime in May 2021. Once its mission objectives are complete, it’ll be commanded to deorbit over the Southern Pacific Ocean where it’ll burn up during reentry into Earth’s Atmosphere.

The Northrop Grumman NG-15 Antares launch vehicle was successfully launched in cool but sunny mid-day weather, lofting the Cygnus spacecraft from Pad 0-A at 12:36 p.m. EST, Saturday, February 20, 2021. Photo: Theresa Cross, Spaceflight Insider


Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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