A new cargo mission is en route to the International Space Station (ISS). The Northrop Grumman Antares rocket lifted off on Wednesday, delivering the uncrewed Cygnus vessel to space. Although, this Cygnus does have a crew of sorts — a crew composed of several dozen mice. The remote-operated spacecraft usually has a quick trip to and back from the ISS, but this one will spend more time in space to get things done.
You might be familiar with the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft from the 2014 rocket explosion when Orbital ATK was an independent company. Now, it’s part of Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, and there haven’t been any major incidents since the 2014 incident. So, the 40 mice strapped into the rocket were safe and sound on their journey into space.
Around half of the cargo on the Cygnus is scientific equipment and materials, including the mice. The rodents are part of a study on a tetanus vaccine. The mice are split into two groups, one that will get the vaccine and another that won’t. Scientists on Earth will examine the mice when they’re shipped back later.
The Cygnus vessel also went into space with 60 “ThinSats” built by elementary and high school students. These are smaller and simpler than CubeSats, carrying various electromagnetic, radiation, and inertial sensors. Students will be able to collect real-time data from the satellites. There’s also one NASA CubeSat (SASSI 2) built by university students. That satellite and all the ThinSats were released by Cygnus shortly after it separated from the upper stage on Wednesday.
The next order of business is to dock with the ISS. Typically, Cygnus spacecraft spend a couple of months docked at the ISS before dropping into the atmosphere where they burn up. This time, Cygnus will head on to another task after leaving the station behind in June. Northrop Grumman and NASA will monitor the craft for as long as seven months to evaluate how well the non-reusable design holds up for extended missions.
During this extra-long tour of duty, Cygnus will deploy even more satellites. Engineers have mounted numerous CubeSats around the exterior of the vessel to deploy over the summer. Another Cygnus spacecraft will launch later this year, so the mission will also demonstrate the team’s ability to keep two missions going at the same time.