Closing out a 36-hour flight from a launch pad in Virginia, a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo ship arrived at the International Space Station Thursday with a host of biomedical experiments, supplies for a 3D printing tech demo, fresh food, and spare parts.
The automated cargo freighter completed a laser-guided final approach to the space station, and held position less than 40 feet (12 meters) below the complex. Astronaut Megan McArthur used the lab’s Canadian built robotic arm to reach out and capture the Cygnus spacecraft at 6:07 a.m. EDT (1007 GMT) Thursday as the space station flew more than 260 miles (420 kilometers) over Portugal.
The arrival marked the 16th delivery of supplies to the space station by a Cygnus spacecraft since 2013, continuing a twice-per-year sequence of cargo runs by Northrop Grumman’s unpiloted freighter.
The Cygnus spacecraft for Northrop Grumman’s NG-16 cargo mission is named for NASA astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who became the first Asian-American in space in 1985. Onizuka died with six crewmates on the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
“On behalf of the Expedition 65 crew, I’m pleased to bring the Cygnus spacecraft ‘S.S. Ellison Onizuka’ aboard the International Space Station today,” McArthur said from the station Thursday. “Our congratulations go out to the combined teams from Northrop Grumman and NASA for the mission successes so far. This mission enables ground-breaking research, through which we hope to meet Col. Onizuka’s challenge, to enable the next generation to look out from a higher plateau.”
Ground controllers took over commanding of the robotic arm to berth the Cygnus supply ship to the space station’s Unity module a few hours later. Astronauts planned to open hatches and enter the cargo craft to begin unpacking supplies stowed inside the ship’s Italian-built pressurized module.
The mission launched Tuesday aboard an Antares rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia.
The Cygnus spacecraft is scheduled to remain at the space station around three months. Astronauts will release the cargo freighter using the robot arm in November after packing the ship with trash and other unnecessary equipment.
The supply ship will re-enter the atmosphere and largely burn up over the South Pacific Ocean.
NASA has multibillion-dollar contracts with Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corp. to ferry cargo to and from the space station. Northrop Grumman’s two resupply contracts, valued at up to $6 billion, covers at least 19 operational cargo missions through 2023.
The cargo delivered to the space station aboard the Cygnus spacecraft includes a technology demonstration to look at how future space explorers could 3D-print materials out of lunar soil.
The 3D printing demonstration, developed by Redwire, will use a “lunar regolith simulant” with physical properties and chemical composition similar to that of the moon’s soil, said Howie Schulman, the project lead for the Redwire Regolith Print mission.
The simulant is a fine gray powder, which will be combined with a thermoplastic binder to create the feedstock for the 3D printing experiment.
The experiment, developed in partnership with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, will use Redwire’s commercially-operated Additive Manufacturing Facility on the space station. Redwire says it’s the first time that material designed to mimic lunar soil has been used for the 3D printing in space.
Hardware launched on the NG-16 mission for the 3D printing demonstration includes three custom-designed printing heads and three print bed surfaces, according to Redwire.
The material samples printed during the tech demo will be returned to Earth for analysis.
NASA and commercial companies are interested in 3D printing technology that could help manufacture components and infrastructure on the surface of the moon. Future lunar explorers could manufacture their own hardware instead of bringing materials from Earth, or relying on costly cargo shipments.
The NG-16 mission also delivered spare parts for the space station’s toilet, a stowage rack for the lab’s airlock, and cooling fans for the station’s life support system.
The Cygnus spacecraft also delivered a “mod kit” to configure the space station’s solar power truss for the arrival of the next pair of new roll-out solar arrays in late 2022. The first two new solar arrays were delivered to the station in June by a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule, beginning an upgrade that will expand the lab’s power generation capability for another decade of operations.
Astronauts will install the “mod kit” on the station’s huge power truss during a spacewalk ahead of the arrival of the next two roll-out solar arrays.
Other payloads on the NG-16 mission include a biomedical research investigation looking at muscle loss in microgravity, and an experiment to test a more efficient thermal control system that could be used to dissipate heat on future spacecraft.
One of the final experiments of the mission will be a test of heat shield technology using three small capsules stowed inside the Cygnus spacecraft.
When the Cygnus breaks apart during re-entry, the capsules will plunge deeper into the atmosphere protected by heat shields made of different types of materials.
Led by engineers at the University of Kentucky, the experiment will collect data from sensors embedded in each capsule’s heat shield. The measurements will be transmitted back to the science team via the Iridium satellite network.
The developers of the re-entry experiment say the data will help validate computer models used in spacecraft design.