The new Cygnus spacecraft is the cheeriest of the cargo tugs hauling gear to the International Space Station. Those new round solar panels are effective, efficient, and adorable!

Solar panel on a new Cygnus spacecraft high over Africa. Image credit: NASA/Scott Kelly

When the S.S. Deke Slayton II launched in December, it was the first mission of the newly-upgraded Cygnus spacecraft. The upgrades included an expanded cargo hold and reworked service module, but the most visually striking difference is the new solar panels. Instead of stiff rectangular bars like on every other spacecraft (including older-model Cygnus spacecraft), the Cygnus now sports a pair of cheery round orange-yellow Ultraflex solar arrays.

Ultraflex solar arrays undergoing ground testing an assembly. Image credit: Orbital ATK

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Now the spacecraft putters around in orbit like a mouse with over-sized ears, and adds a spark of whimsy to the harsh angularity of the International Space Station. Paired with the capsule’s round bound, Cygnus adds some much-needed curved contrast to the endless right angles of the space station.

Ultraflex arrays for the InSight mission to Mars. Image credit: Orbital ATK

The change in form is driven by function. The round fan-fold allows for higher performance at a lower mass than typical arrays. The arrays also fold up smaller than traditional arrays, reducing the stowage volume during launch.

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Earlier versions of the technology were used on the Mars Phoenix Lander, while the current version will be used on the InSight Lander to Mars when it eventually launches.

Cygus adds curves to all the straight lines. Image credit: Roscosmos/Sergey Volkov

Really, there is no question. Roscosmos’s Progress is bulbously utilitarian. JAXA’s HTV series are stripped down to the bare minimums (although they do explode quite gloriously during reentry). SpaceX’s Dragon is aiming for sleekly modern. But Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft is the most whimsical of the lot, bringing a dash of cheer along with every delivery.

Even the approach lights are cute. Image credit: NASA/Scott Kelly

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The Cygnus spacecraft was unloaded of its cargo. For the past month, it has been reloaded with expired experiments, dirty laundry, and other unwanted materials. It will be jettisoned from the space station and sent on a destructive path to burn up in the atmosphere as part of a fiery garbage day soon.

Cygnus sneaks into a portrait of the Bahamas. Image credit: NASA/Scott Kelly

[Orbital ATK]

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Top image: Cygnus spacecraft approaching the space station in December 2015. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.