Space Image

Northrop Grumman Announces Cygnus Spacecraft Upgrades

Northrop Grumman is planning significant upgrades to its Cygnus cargo vehicle, geared towards supporting both the International Space Station (ISS) and future commercial space stations.

  • More details coming soon...
Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Thu Aug 03 2023Written by Zac Aubert

Northrop Grumman is planning significant upgrades to its Cygnus cargo vehicle, geared towards supporting both the International Space Station (ISS) and future commercial space stations.

The upgrades were announced at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference on August 2, where a Northrop Grumman representative highlighted their efforts to enhance the capabilities of the decade-old spacecraft to serve NASA and other clients in the coming years.

The first flight of this upgraded Cygnus is scheduled for the NG-23 cargo mission, set to launch in mid-2025 on the inaugural launch of the new Antares 330, which boasts enhanced payload performance to accommodate the larger Cygnus.

One of the major upgrades Northrop Grumman is working on is increasing Cygnus's payload capacity. The current version of Cygnus can carry approximately 3,750 kilograms of pressurized cargo to the ISS. The upgraded version which is already under development will boost that capacity to 5,000 kilograms. This improved variant, known as the "Mission B" version of Cygnus, will feature a payload module extension of 1.5 meters to accommodate the extra cargo. 

Northrop Grumm is also looking how to improve how Cygnus docks with the space station. Currently, the spacecraft is berthed to the station using the Canadarm2 robotic arm, in contrast to SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, which actively docks to the station. Northrop Grumman is exploring options to make autonomous docking a feasible solution as some commercial stations in future may not have a suitable robotic arm in their initial configurations, making active docking an attractive option.

Northrop Grumman has empashized Cynus's capability of reboosting the ISS's orbit and the potential to do reboosts for other stations. This function was tested on a previous Cygnus missions and will be demonstrated again on the NG-19 Cygnus, which launched on August 1 and is scheduled to arrive at the ISS on August 4. The ability to perform reboost maneuvers is advantageous as it utilizes propellant not needed for the spacecraft's arrival at the station.

The company is looking to leverage Cygnus for various purposes, including as a proposed commercial space station. Northrop Grumman received funding through NASA's Commercial LEO Destinations program for initial design work. Northrop Grumman also received an unfunded Space Act Agreement for a "Persistent Platform" version of Cygnus designed to host uncrewed payloads, which complements its station.

By reusing existing hardware, such as Cygnus and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module developed for the lunar Gateway, Northrop Grumman aims to keep additional non-recurring engineering costs low.

The company is actively offering Cygnus services to other companies involved in commercial space stations. They are in discussions with various potential Commercial LEO Destination providers and space station operators, seeking to determine the services Cygnus offers to the ISS that may not be required for commercial stations, as well as exploring new services that Cygnus could provide for future stations.

Cygnus made its inaugural flight to the ISS on a demonstration mission in September 2013, and including NG-19, has launched a total of 20 Cygnus missions to date (including one lost in an Antares launch failure in October 2014).

To meet the needs of commercial stations, the company is considering doubling the current Cygnus production rate of two vehicles per year.