Update for 1:19 pm ET: Northrop Grumman has successfully launched the Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus NG-15 cargo ship. Read our full story.
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — NASA and Northrop Grumman are teaming up to launch a cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) today (Feb. 20) and you can watch the action live online.
The Cygnus NG-15 spacecraft will blast off atop a two-stage Antares rocket from Pad 09A at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at 12:36 p.m. EST (17361736 GMT).
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Northrop Grumman is one of NASA's commercial partners that keeps the space station well-stocked with supplies as part of the agency's commercial cargo resupply program. The silvery spacecraft is loaded with 8,200 lbs. (3,700 kilograms) of crew supplies, hardware and research experiments for the Expedition 64 crew.
Following liftoff, the Cygnus will deploy 30 small Thin Sats as part of a student program with Virginia's Commercial Space Flight Authority. It will then spend two days in space chasing after the International Space Station (ISS). Once it arrives, the spacecraft will berth to the orbital outpost with the help of the station's Canadarm2 robotic arm.
Northrop Grumman built both the rocket and the spacecraft, and the contractor has a tradition of naming each of its cargo capsules after an individual who made a significant contribution to human spaceflight. For this mission, the Cygnus is named the S.S. Katherine Johnson, after the mathematician whose calculations helped make John Glenn the first American to orbit Earth, in 1962. The S.S. Katherine Johnson will take her own flight exactly 59 years later to the day.
Johnson worked as a human computer for NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), before moving to the Space Task Group at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia after the agency was officially founded in 1958. She died at the age of 101 on Feb. 24, 2020.
The S.S. Katherine Johnson will remain attached to the space station for approximately three months NASA officials said during a pre-launch news briefing on Friday (Feb. 19). At the end of its mission, space station astronauts will load it with trash and other disposable material before sending it off for a destructive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. (The freighter will burn up in the atmosphere and poses no threat to anyone on Earth.)
Winter snow storms affected much of the country this week, including Texas and Virginia, however, NASA's team at Wallops and in Texas — some without power and water — were able to work through the challenges that came along with the storms, to ensure the mission was able to get off the ground.
"I wanted to thank my Texas colleagues who have been working without power and water this week," said Joel Montalbano, NASA's manager of the International Space Station Program. "And the folks at Johnson Space Center operations who have made sure that Mission Control stays operational."
Ahead of Saturday's launch, the team ran through a mission dress rehearsal, during which the launch conductors put the launch team through its paces and varying off-nominal scenarios in case something goes wrong on launch day. Then on Tuesday (Feb. 16), the rocket and spacecraft rolled to the pad and went through some system checkouts.
On Thursday, the teams lowered the rocket back to horizontal in order to open up the spacecraft for some last-minute payloads. These are time-sensitive payloads (like those dealing with biological sciences) that cannot sit inside the cargo craft for too long.
Kurt Eberly of Northrop Grumman says that this is a new capability of the Antares rocket, that was added specifically for the company's second commercial resupply services contract (CRS-2) with NASA. The rocket now flies in what the company calls its 230+ configuration, which means that it now has late load capabilities as well as varying cargo mass.
Weather forecasters have predicted there's a 75% chance of favorable weather conditions on Saturday. The primary concerns are ground winds and cumulus clouds. If needed, there are several backup launch opportunities, with the first being on Sunday (Feb. 21) at 12:14 p.m. EDT (1714 GMT).
Eberly says that the mission does have wind and temperature constraints, as the rocket cannot launch if the temperature goes below 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius) and if the ground winds are above 29 knots. The weather should be within the acceptable limits on launch day, according to the folks who are overseeing the mission at Wallops.
"We're very proud and excited to be a part of another commercial resupply mission," Shannon Fitzpatrick, chief of the range and mission management at Wallops, said during Friday's briefing. "Range is green, all systems are nominal and we look forward to a beautiful midday launch."
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