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Northrop Grumman’s capsule will be used in a Space Development Agency project to fly to the International Space Station

The upcoming cargo delivery mission from Northrop Grumman to the International Space Station will hold a payload from the Space Development Agency that will gather data for the production of the missile-tracking sensors. The Prototype Infrared Payload experiment is expected to deploy in July on a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket from the Wallops Island, Virginia, as part of the NG-16 Cygnus cargo flight.

The Space Development Agency awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.8 million deal for this project in June. The Prototype Infrared Payload would gather data in order to build algorithms that will enable sensors to detect hypersonic missiles in the low orbits. The data will be gathered during the Cygnus resupply flight, which will begin soon after berthing with ISS and last about three months, according to a Northrop Grumman official.

The test is part of Northrop Grumman’s project for the Missile Defense Agency’s Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensors system. Northrop Grumman and L3Harris were awarded contracts by MDA to develop sensor satellites that will be launched into low Earth orbit in 2023 July. The agency would put the sensors to the examination to see how well they can detect hypersonic as well as dim upper-stage ballistic rockets.  The MDA satellites would be part of a wider missile warning network which will include missile-tracking satellites established by L3Harris and SpaceX for the Space Development Agency.

The ISS experiment is important because the payload will obtain low-Earth-orbit sample data, which will be used to build algorithms for the space-based infrared sensors. DoD sensor satellites can monitor missiles from geostationary orbit, but algorithms to monitor hypersonic missiles against the quick-moving low Earth orbit backdrop are still being developed. The Prototype Infrared Payload is just one of many projects the Space Development Agency aims to deploy this year as it aims to launch a mesh network of the low-Earth-orbit satellites in the year 2022.

Optical inter-satellite connections, which utilize lasers to beam data throughout space, are a key demo planned to fly this summer, according to the agency’s director Derek Tournear, who called the technology a “big risk” element in the constellation’s growth. The aim is to use ultra-high broadband laser connections to bind hundreds of satellites in orbit and ground stations.

On this mission, the Space Development Agency is partnering with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and has provided numerous requests for information from corporations on the state of the technology. Contractors must meet the agency’s published technical specifications to ensure that optical links from various suppliers are compatible.

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