Antares rocket launches ovarian cells and other wild experiments to space station for NASA

Ovarian cells from cows are moo-ving to the space station, along with a batch of other intriguing science experiments aboard a Northrop Grumman cargo ship that soared into orbit early Monday (Nov. 7). 

The Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo ship launched toward the International Space Station (ISS) on the company's Antares rocket at 5:32 a.m. EST (1032 GMT) from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. The launch was delayed by 24 hours due to a fire alarm at Northrop Grumman's flight control center in Dulles, Virginia that forced a building evacuation.

Monday's launch, however, appeared flawless, with the Antares rocket lighting up the predawn sky as it launched into orbit. About 8 minutes later, the Cygnus NG-18 spacecraft, named the SS Sally Ride in honor of astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space who died in 2012, reached orbit and was expected to unfurl its twin solar arrays. If all goes well, the Cygnus spacecraft should arrive at the space station early Wednesday (Nov. 9), where it will be captured by astronauts using a robotic arm at 5:05 a.m. EST (1005 GMT) and attached to an open berth. 

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A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus NG-18 cargo ship for NASA launches to the International Space Station from the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia on Nov. 7, 2022. (Image credit: NASA TV)

"This is a very exciting time for research on the International Space Station," said Heidi Parris, NASA's associate program scientist for the station program, in a prelaunch briefing Nov. 5. "Every new vehicle that launches is bringing up not only new research but also new capabilities."

The Cygnus NG-18 cargo ship is carrying 8,265 pounds (3,749 kilograms) of supplies for the space station crew. That includes 3,608 pounds (1,637 kg) of crew supplies, 1,873 pounds (850 kg) of science gear, 145 pounds (66 kg) of spacewalk equipment, 2,375 pounds (1,077 kg) of vehicle hardware and 172 pounds (78 kg) of computer resources, NASA officials said. Northrop Grumman said the flight is its heaviest cargo delivery yet, and includes an extra 44 pounds (20 kg) of cargo due to payload optimization. 

While the cargo ship did launch a week after Halloween, there were some treats for the astronauts aboard the Cygnus, NASA said. 

"This is really our first approach, and it is for the moment an observational study," Fuso, who is also an associate professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, said during a livestreamed press conference on Oct. 25. After the results are in, the investigators will research possible drug interventions or edible (nutraceutical) additives to improve fertility outcomes in future studies, he added.

Also heading to the orbiting laboratory is a 3D printer known as the BioFabrication Facility, which also reached space in 2019 to print some human knee cartilage (specifically, the meniscus), and a set of human heart cells.

"We brought [the printer] back to our lab in Indiana ... to add a few new capabilities, such as the ability to finely control the temperature of each printhead, and now we're excited to see it launch," said Rich Boling, vice president of corporate advancement for in-space manufacturing and operations at the company Redwire Space, in the same conference.

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After another space shipment, Redwire will print a new meniscus and study it in the lab to get ready for possible patient transplants in the future, Boling said. Blood vessels and cardiac tissues will be manufactured as well. Redwire also plans drug efficacy testing in space on "organoids," or miniature versions of organs.

Boling hinted that such research would continue on Orbital Reef, a Redwire-supported commercial space station in development for flight in the 2030s. The project is led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space, and includes partners like Boeing and Amazon.

Some of the other experiments making their space debut include, in the words of NASA (opens in new tab)

  • Assessing how plants adapt to space: Plants exposed to spaceflight undergo changes that involve the addition of extra information to their DNA, which regulates how genes turn on or off but does not change the sequence of the DNA itself. This process is known as epigenetic change. Plant Habitat-03 (opens in new tab) assesses whether such adaptations in one generation of plants grown in space can transfer to the next generation.
  • Mudflow mixtures: Climate change and global warming are contributing to increasing occurrence of wildfires. When a wildfire burns plants, combusted chemicals create a thin layer of soil that repels rainwater. Rain then erodes the soil and can turn into catastrophic mudflows that carry heavy boulders and debris downhill, causing significant damage to infrastructure, watersheds, and human life. Post-Wildfire Mudflow Micro-Structure (opens in new tab) evaluates the composition of these mudflows, which include sand, water, and trapped air.
  • First satellites from Uganda and Zimbabwe: BIRDS-5 (opens in new tab) is a constellation of CubeSats: PEARLAFRICASAT-1, the first satellite developed by Uganda; ZIMSAT-1, Zimbabwe’s first satellite; and TAKA from Japan. BIRDS-5 performs multispectral observations of Earth using a commercial off-the-shelf camera and demonstrates a high-energy electronic measuring instrument. The data collected could help distinguish bare ground from forest and farmland and possibly indicate the quality of agricultural growth. 
  • Powering the space station: Hardware to be installed outside the station in preparation for the installation of Roll-Out Solar Arrays (opens in new tab).

Monday's launch marked the first flight of a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket, which uses a Ukranian-built first stage and Russian rocket engines, since Russia invaded Ukraine in February of this year. At the time, Northrop Grumman said the company had enough components for its next two Antares missions: the NG-18 mission that launched Monday and NG-19, which will likely launch in the first half of 2023.

"Really it's been unaffected," Kurt Eberly, Northrop Grumman's director of space launch programs, told reporters before launch. "We've been in communication with the suppliers and the situation is normal for the processing."

Northrop Grumman is developing a completely new first stage booster built by the U.S. company Firefly Aerospace that uses that company's engines. Called the Antares 330, the rocket will be more powerful than current Antares vehicle and will be launch payloads of up to 23,000 pounds (10,500 kilograms) into orbit, allowing its Cygnus vehicles to carry up to 11,000 (5,000 kg) more cargo.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Nov. 7 to note the successful launch of the Northrop Grumman Antares rocket and Cygnus NG-18 cargo ship.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab)Space.com Editor-in-Chief Tariq Malik contributed to this report. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace