Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems aims for one year or more on-orbit Cygnus lifetime

by Chris Gebhardt

With Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of Orbital ATK complete, the newly-formed Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems will now be the division within Northrop Grumman responsible for all Cygnus missions to the International Space Station as well as the execution of the extended CRS1 and the upcoming CRS2 contracts.  As part of those contracts, the company will continue its focus on offering Cygnus as a testbed for new technology demonstrations, just as past Cygnus missions have done.

The most notable use of Cygnus as a test bed for new technologies was the three part SAFFIRE (Spacecraft Fire Experiment) conducted over the OA-6, OA-5, and OA 7 missions.  SAFFIRE saw Cygnus’ controllers deliberately ignite a fire inside a special containment module in the spacecraft’s pressurized cargo volume that contained material samples commonly found on the ISS as well as those under selection for NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

Prior to SAFFIRE, fire studies in space had been extremely limited due to the potentially life-threatening nature of such experiments during crewed missions.  But Cygnus changed all of that, providing a safe, non-life-threatening space in which SAFFIRE researchers could study a realistic fire aboard a spacecraft thanks to the uncrewed and end-of-mission destructive nature of Cygnus flights.

In this way, Cygnus provided NASA a real, safe, in-flight testbed for understanding how a fire works, spreads, and dies in microgravity while exposed to the various materials a spacecraft is built from.  

The results of the SAFFIRE experiments from the three Cygnus flights will help determine microgravity flammability limits for several spacecraft materials, help validate NASA’s material selection criteria, and help scientists understand how microgravity and limited oxygen environments affect flame size.

In a less visible way, Cygnus’ most-recent demonstration of its testbed capability came on its OA-8E flight in November 2017 when it was used as an extension to the International Space Station’s experiment capabilities.

During OA-8E, the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus received high praise from NASA for its use in hosting the TangoLab-1 experiment.

TangoLab-1 was tested to determine the viability of using Cygnus as a laboratory while docked at the ISS and hosted a radiation experiment during the course of its 21 days of berthed operations.

In effect, TangoLab-1 was a pathfinder experiment, testing the feasibility of operating experiments on and using Cygnus as an additional laboratory element for the Station during future missions of the craft.  

Cygnus, as seen from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

“[That was] the first time we used Cygnus with the TangoLab-1 experiment as an actual extension of the ISS laboratory,” stated Frank DeMauro upon the OA-8E Cygnus’ departure from the Station on 5 December 2017.  “That experiment went exceedingly well. NASA is very happy. We are obviously very happy.”

Importantly, the merger between Northrop Grumman and Orbital ATK does not change any plans to continue to offer Cygnus for various experiment lab extensions to the Space Station or as a free-flying testbed for new technologies and experiments.

Speaking just last month in an exclusive interview with Chris Gebhardt of NASASpaceflight, Frank DeMauro, now Vice President and General Manager of the Advanced Programs Division for Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, said, “We have a tremendous amount of capability [in the area of performing technology demonstrations].

“We think SAFFIRE kicked it off, where we demonstrated the flexibility to leave ISS and fly around for a couple of weeks.  Then we took on, and we continue to fly, the NanoRacks cubesats, and we do that for NASA,” stated Mr. DeMauro.

“And we’re also looking to the future.  In future Cygnus vehicles, future missions, in the not too distant future, we’ll have the capability to stay on orbit for much longer periods of time, up to a year or even more, which we think is gonna offer the commercial community as well as NASA and other government agencies the ability to fly all sorts of rideshare and hosted payloads on Cygnus.”

TangoLab1 (Credit: NASA)

That anticipated ability for Cygnus to remain on orbit for a full calendar year or more is a striking increase in the craft’s capability from its CRS1 contract variant to the improved versions that will fly the CRS2 contract beginning next year – with current Cygnus vehicles able to remain on orbit for about 90 days.

During this extended on-orbit lifetime, Cygnus would provide commercial and government customers the ability to perform science experiments not permissible on the ISS, demonstrate technical capabilities, mature those same capabilities, and fly a payload like SAFFIRE and downlink that data to Earth.

“We use our space to fly hosted payloads, demonstrate capabilities, and that capability is continuing to grow to where, in a year or so, we’ll be able to fly missions for about a year, and offer a significant amount of in-orbit time to a whole array of in-orbit customers,” noted Mr. DeMauro.

“In particular, we think NASA really has a great opportunity here to test out technologies that either we or they want to fly as part of their cislunar initiatives.  We can either bring those experiments up to ISS and test them there, or we can test them after we fly away.”

New variants of Cygnus could spend over a year in orbit, providing greater flexibility for customer science and technology demonstration needs. (Credit: NASA)

What’s more, this one year or more on-orbit capability would also give Cygnus the ability to take experiments off of the International Space Station, give them a pristine microgravity environment, and then fly them back to the Station so that they could be returned to Earth on another vehicle or studied by the crew on orbit.

“Between the combination of Antares and Cygnus as a system, we continue to provide more cargo to NASA, more scientific test capability, and as we get into CRS2, be able to do that at a more competitive pricing.  And we think there’s a lot we offer to our customers,” stated Mr. DeMauro.

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