Hours after its Nov. 7 launch, one of the two solar arrays on the Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo spacecraft failed to deploy. NASA is currently debating whether or not the vessel can safely approach the International Space Station.
The NASA Cygnus spacecraft, which was carrying out the NG-18 mission, was supposed to release its two circular UltraFlex solar arrays roughly three hours after liftoff from Virginia atop an Antares rocket. Powering the spaceship at a rate of 3.5 kilowatts is the arrays’ main function.
NASA, however, released a statement over six hours after liftoff saying that only one of the two solar arrays had deployed. Data on the second array deployment is currently being gathered by Northrop Grumman in close collaboration with NASA, the agency reports.
The NASA statement claims that Northrop reported that the Cygnus had enough power to successfully dock with the ISS early on November 9. The agency said it was “evaluating” the data.
Operations integration manager for the ISS at NASA Dina Contella said during a briefing on the upcoming spacewalks on November 7 that the spacecraft “had an array that didn’t deploy, so Northrop Grumman is working on it right now to get that deployed, and of course we’re assessing the capture and berthing in case it does not deploy.”
There are a few steps involved in setting up the array, she said. Northrop “is leading the team in assessing the data that they have and figuring out the next steps,” she said.
While a capture would be possible if the array deploys prior to Cygnus’ arrival at the ISS, station program head Anthony Contella stated more information is needed if the array is not deployed in time. She warned that the device could open during capture or berthing if it was only partially deployed. “As it gets closer, we’ll be conducting things like that, as well as risk assessments if they’re necessary.”
She also mentioned that, if necessary, Cygnus might linger near the station to give researchers extra time to examine the solar array issue, albeit for how long would depend on exactly where in the approach NASA and Northrop opted to pause. When it comes to the second array’s deployment, I’m feeling quite optimistic.
Previous Cygnus missions had successful deployments of their solar arrays, but NASA’s Lucy asteroid mission, set to launch in October 2021, experienced issues with its larger version of the arrays. Almost immediately after liftoff, one of the two circular arrays did not fully deploy and latch into position. Engineers spent months investigating the issue and making multiple attempts to fully deploy the array, all of which were partially successful but ultimately failed to get the array to latch. In June, NASA reported that the array was stable and would provide enough power for the spaceship even though it was not entirely deployed.