NASA has an issue with the Cygnus spacecraft heading to ISS

In a rare turn of events for what is usually such a reliable vehicle, NASA is currently assessing the condition of a Cygnus spacecraft that’s only managed to deploy one of its two solar arrays as it heads to the International Space Station (ISS) on a supply mission.

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus space freighter pictured arriving at the International Space Station on Aug. 12, 2021. Cygnus will depart from the space station on Nov. 20, 2021.
Another of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus space freighters arriving at the International Space Station on August 12, 2021, with both of its solar arrays clearly deployed. NASA

The spacecraft’s maker, Northrop Grumman, believes it’s safe for the Cygnus to dock with the ISS, but NASA has opted to explore the situation further before making a final decision on whether to perform the maneuver early on Wednesday, as originally planned.

Following a launch delay due to a fire alarm at the control center, the Cygnus NG-18 spacecraft launched aboard an Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia early on Monday morning.

As usual with this workhorse spacecraft, the Cygnus should’ve deployed its two circular solar arrays, which help to power the vehicle, around three hours after leaving the launchpad. But on this occasion something went awry.

It’s not currently clear why the second solar array failed to deploy in the usual way. Engineers on the ground are trying to work out if the deployment can still be safely executed, though if it can’t, Northrop Grumman believes docking the spacecraft with the ISS will still be possible. NASA, however, is concerned that the condition of the spacecraft could cause an issue at the point of docking, potentially creating further problems for the Cygnus or even the space station itself.

“After launching earlier today, November 7, Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft has successfully deployed one of its two solar arrays,” NASA said in a message shared on its website on Monday.

It continued: “Northrop Grumman is gathering data on the second array deployment and is working closely with NASA. Northrop Grumman has reported to NASA that Cygnus has sufficient power to rendezvous with the ISS on Wednesday, November 9, to complete its primary mission, and NASA is assessing this and the configuration required for capture and berthing.”

Cygnus has so far been on 17 successful missions to the ISS since the first one in 2013. Only one time has it failed to reach the orbital outpost, but that was due to a catastrophic rocket failure shortly after a launch in 2013.

The Cygnus NG-18 spacecraft — this one named Sally Ride in honor of the American spaceflight pioneer — is carrying more than 8,000 pounds of supplies for the crew, along with the usual haul of scientific experiments for carrying out in the station’s microgravity conditions. With so much on board, you cane be certain NASA and Northrop Grumman are working tirelessly to ensure the docking can take place without any issue.

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