Cargo Craft Bound for Space Station Troubled By Unusual Glitch

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Northrop Grumman’s NG-18 Cygnus space freighter is loaded up with 4 tons of hardware, crew supplies and research equipment destined for the International Space Station. It launched from Virginia on Monday morning, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing as Cygnus aims to reach the ISS on Wednesday. Only one of the spacecraft’s two solar arrays has unfurled.

NASA announced the glitch in a short statement on Monday, saying Northrop Grumman is gathering data on the second array deployment and working closely with the space agency to investigate what happened. Northrop Grumman said the spacecraft has sufficient power to rendezvous with the ISS as scheduled. NASA said it’s “assessing this and the configuration required for capture and berthing.”

The uncrewed cargo craft uses fold-out solar arrays that tuck away during launch and later open up like circular fans. A Northrop Grumman video from 2015 shows what the process looks like.

This particular Cygnus spacecraft is named the S.S. Sally Ride in honor of the first American woman in space. It’s carrying some intriguing experiments related to 3D-printing human tissue and growing plants in microgravity. 

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft doesn’t return to Earth. The crew typically packs it up with trash before it undocks, reenters Earth’s atmosphere and burns up, like an elaborate garbage disposal system.

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NASA provided a quick Cygnus update during a livestreamed spacewalk preview briefing on Monday. ISS operations integration manager Dina Contella said the spacecraft was doing well and that Northrop Grumman is working on deploying the second array. 

Solar arrays in space can be tricky. NASA’s asteroid-focused Lucy spacecraft experienced a problem with fully deploying one of its fan-like solar arrays after it launched in 2021. The spacecraft is proceeding on its mission despite the issue.  

NASA is expected to provide updates on Cygnus’ progress, solar array deployment and docking as it learns more. The S.S. Sally Ride has some very valuable cargo on board, so hopefully one array will be enough to get the job done.

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