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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket modified for Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo launch on Jan. 30

SpaceX is preparing to launch a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft on its flagship Falcon 9 rocket for the first time next week.

The launch of the NG-20 resupply mission is targeted for no earlier than Tuesday, Jan. 30 at 12:07 p.m. EST (1707 GMT). As its name implies, this is the twentieth cargo flight that Northrop Grumman has sent to the International Space Station (ISS), but the first time that the company's Cygnus cargo craft has been sent to the orbital lab atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. 

During a pre-flight teleconference on Friday (Jan. 26), William Gerstenmaier, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX, said that the Falcon 9's payload fairing, the shell that surrounds and protects a spacecraft during ascent while atop a rocket, had to be modified to add a hatch measuring 5 feet by 4 feet (1.5m by 1.2m). The hatch gives ground crews the ability to add extra "late-load" cargo before launch including special treats like ice cream for the astronauts aboard the space station, Gerstenmaier said.

Gerstenmaier added that the complication of addition of the hatch contributed to the decision to delay the launch one day to Jan. 30. That's because the area inside that hatch must be environmentally controlled, since any contamination on Cygnus's docking hardware could affect how well it berths at the ISS.

"So that's a pretty intense activity," Gerstenmaier said. "This will be the first time we've done that. It's taken a lot of modifications on our part to get this hardware ready to go fly." 

When it's time at the ISS is complete, Cygnus will depart carrying trash and other waste to be disposed of in a fiery reentry in Earth's atmosphere, which is "another really important function of the platform," Dhalla added.

Previous Cygnus cargo missions flew atop Northrop Grumman's Antares rocket, but the current version of that vehicle is being phased out due to Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Supply chains for Antares, which relied on Ukrainian-built first stages and Russian rocket engines, have been disrupted by the invasion. Antares 230 made its last flight in August 2023.

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