Northrop Grumman's NG-20 mission lifting off from SLC-40, on board a Falcon 9. Credits: SpaceX

Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft First Ever Launch on Falcon 9

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launched the Cygnus cargo spacecraft, marking the first-ever partnership with Northrop Grumman for a resupply mission to the ISS

On January 30, 2024, the Cygnus cargo spacecraft was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, thus representing an unprecedented historical event as it is the first time that these two space technologies, developed by two different companies, collaborate for a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Northrop Grumman's NG-20 mission lifting off from SLC-40, on board a Falcon 9. Credits: SpaceX
Northrop Grumman’s NG-20 mission lifting off from SLC-40, on board a Falcon 9. Credits: SpaceX

At 17:07 UTC, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 lifted off from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral, carrying Northrop Grumman’s 20th Commercial Resupply Services mission. Two minutes and twenty seconds into the flight, the second stage separated from the booster, which landed at LZ-1 eight minutes later. At T+14:40 the Cygnus cargo ship was deployed. This was the 10th flight for the first stage booster that supported this mission (B1077).

The uncrewed Cygnus cargo spacecraft was designed and built by Northrop Grumman, one of the world’s largest aerospace and defense companies. Its purpose is to transport scientific experiments and other payloads to the ISS, where it is scheduled to arrive by 09:20 UTC, on Feb.1. It will be attached to the Unity module for about two months. At the moment of detachment from the ISS, it will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, burning and disintegrating.


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Cargo Mission NG-20

The NG-20 mission is transporting over 3,700 kilograms of goods to the ISS. All previous Cygnus cargo launches have occurred on Northrop’s Antares launch vehicle, except for two missions launched on Atlas 5 after an Antares launch failure in 2014.

Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft. Credits: NASA
Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft. Credits: NASA

The decision made to choose the Falcon 9 launcher was motivated by several factors, including Northrop’s need to find an alternative to the retired Antares, whose Ukrainian first stage was powered by Russian engines that in this historical period are becoming difficult to procure.

Northrop has decided to take advantage of the availability and reliability of the Falcon 9 and plans to launch at least three Cygnus cargo missions on Falcon 9 rockets, starting with the NG-20 mission.


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Key changes to accommodate the late loading

No changes have been made to the Cygnus cargo ship, according to Cyrus Dhalla, vice president and general manager of tactical space systems at Northrop Grumman, during a NASA briefing on January 27.

SpaceX, however, had to make changes to accommodate the late loading of cargo within the 24 hours before launch. The motivation lies in having to load biological samples or fresh food as close as possible to the launch, ensuring their integrity and quality.

To provide this service, SpaceX developed for the very first time the so-called “gigadoor” on the side of the fairing of the Falcon 9, which is a 1.5 by 1.2-meter door. This will ensure environmentally controlled access to the interior of the Cygnus for late cargo. The reason why it is fundamental to maintain a pristine environment inside Cygnus is because in this way when it hatches the ISS, no contamination or debris can spread inside the station.

Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft. Credits: NASA
Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft inside Falcon 9’s fairing. Credits: NASA

“We at SpaceX like to do innovative and creative things. So, you give us a challenge, we figure out a way to go do that. The fairing is still recoverable just as they were before. This will be the first time we’ve carried a cryogenic payload inside the fairing”, explained in a media teleconference William Gerstenmaier, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX.

The launch of the Cygnus cargo ship on a Falcon 9 is an example of how the space sector has become increasingly diverse and competitive, with numerous agencies offering different and complementary solutions to meet the needs and expectations of customers.


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Beatrice Romeo

Beatrice Romeo

Master student in Aerospace Engineering.
Ocean activist and kitesurfing athlete.

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