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Cygnus cargo ship leaves International Space Station, begins new mission in orbit

Northrop Grumman's Cygnus NG-12 cargo spacecraft departed the International Space Station (opens in new tab) today (Jan. 31), nearly three months after it arrived at the orbiting laboratory with about 4 tons of supplies and science experiments for the Expedition 61 crew.

The cargo vessel, named the S.S. Alan Bean (opens in new tab) after the Apollo 12 astronaut, began its journey back to Earth after ground controllers in Houston used the station's Canadarm2 robotic arm to release it in orbit. Before the spacecraft meets its fiery demise in Earth's atmosphere, it will spend about a month in orbit deploying various scientific payloads. 

On Feb. 29, ground controllers will initiate a deorbit maneuver, after which the cargo ship will execute "a safe, destructive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere," NASA officials said in a statement (opens in new tab)

Video: See stunning Earth views as Cygnus spacecraft departs space station (opens in new tab)
Related:
Antares rocket launches Cygnus NG-12 cargo craft (photos) (opens in new tab)

Northrop Grumman's Cygnus NG-12 cargo spacecraft moves away from the International Space Station after ground controllers in Houston used the station's Canadarm2 robotic arm to send it off. At the time of release, the station was flying about 250 miles (400 kilometers) over the South Pacific, just off the west coast of Chile. (Image credit: NASA TV)

"I’d just like to say farewell to the S.S. Alan bean and thank you to the entire Cygnus NG-12 team for making Expedition 61 highly successful," NASA astronaut and Expedition 61 flight engineer Andrew Morgan said during a live webcast of the spacecraft's departure. He and his fellow Expedition 61 crewmember Jessica Meir provided backup support as ground controllers maneuvered the Cygnus away from the space station. 

While this isn't the first Cygnus cargo vessel to embark on a secondary mission after leaving the space station — the NG-11 mission also took an extended detour (opens in new tab) on its way out in August — it was the first to test out a new release procedure. Typically astronauts on board the station manually operate the robotic arm to release these cargo vessels, but this time NASA tried a different method for the S.S. Alan Bean's departure. 

"For this mission, Cygnus demonstrated a new release position for departure operations and incorporated the first ground-controlled release," NASA officials wrote in the ISS blog (opens in new tab). "The new orientation allowed for easier drift away from the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm."

The S.S. Alan bean drifts away from the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA TV)

During its remaining time in orbit, the S.S. Alan Bean "does have a secondary mission of deploying a number of small satellites to test different technologies — things like cameras, antennas, different communications technologies, solar cells, a number of different materials in the low Earth orbit environment," NASA spokesman Dan Huot said during the webcast.

Some cubesats (opens in new tab) will deploy later this evening, with another batch deploying on Saturday (Feb. 1). Those cubesats include the University of Washington's HuskySat-1 (opens in new tab), the University of Florida's SwampSat II, Sonoma State University's EdgeCube (opens in new tab) and Utah State University's Compact Infrared Radiometer in Space (CIRiS (opens in new tab)) experiment.

Once the Cygnus capsule completes its secondary mission, it will burn up in the atmosphere along with 5,800 lbs. (2,600 kilograms) of disposable cargo, or trash, that the crew of Expedition 61 packed inside. 

The next Cygnus mission, NG-13 (also known as the S.S. Robert H. Lawrence (opens in new tab)) is scheduled to launch to the space station on Feb. 9. 

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com (opens in new tab) or follow her @hannekescience (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) and on Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Hanneke Weitering is an editor at Space.com with 10 years of experience in science journalism. She has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the Space.com team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos. 

  • Speed
    Two things, semi-unrelated.

    First: I notice that ground controllers do an awful lot to/with the ISS. One the one hand, I'm sure some of it is helpful and takes some workload off the astronauts. On the other hand, while I know the astronauts do a lot of things that robots cannot, it must make the general public wonder why we have astronauts up there.

    Second: "Once the Cygnus capsule completes its secondary mission, it will burn up in the atmosphere along with 5,800 lbs. (2,600 kilograms) of disposable cargo, or trash, that the crew of Expedition 61 packed inside."
    5,800 pounds of trash! This is one of those "things that make you go hmmm." What are astronauts going to do with their trash on the moon and Mars? Just one of a myriad of things that must be addressed, but this one to me seems to be the most problematic.
    Reply
  • Steve
    First: Like you said, "astronauts do a lot of things that robots cannot." Foremost among these is studying the effects of spaceflight on humans. Once humans are aboard it makes a lot of sense for them to conduct experiments and maintenance tasks that it would be difficult and expensive to design robots to do.

    Second: Disposable trash includes single use experimental equipment, obsolete equipment, used air and water filters, dead batteries, food and water wrappers and containers, solid human waste and its appropriate containers, used clothing (it's cheaper to send new clothing to the crew than to develop a zero-g washing machine). Think of all the trash and sewage 6 people would produce at home and work in a typical 3 months. 5000 lbs. is about right.
    A moon or Mars colony will have to recycle everything. broken equipment will have to be broken down to be 3D printed into new items and human waste processed into fertilizer for growing food. These technologies are part of what's being developed on the ISS.
    Reply