Air Force, NRO cubesats fly to International Space Station aboard Northrop Grumman resupply mission

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Air Force and NRO cubesats were among many experimental projects encapsulated in the NG-12 Cygnus mission.

Updated Nov. 3 with new information on NRO cubesats

WASHINGTON — Experimental small satellites developed by the Aerospace Corp. for the U.S. Air Force and cubesats for National Reconnaissance Office research projects were aboard a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket that flew a cargo resupply mission Nov. 2 to the International Space Station.

Two identical shoebox-size Air Force cubesats, named Rogue Alpha and Rogue Beta, were among many projects encapsulated in the NG-12 Cygnus mission. The capsule will mate with the International Space Station and the satellites will remain there until they are deployed into their operating orbit in early 2020, said the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

The Rogue cubesats will collect data to support future satellite developments, said SMC. The cubesats also were used to test rapid prototyping techniques as the Air Force seeks to speed up the timeline for building satellites that would be part of a proliferated low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation. Rogue Alpha and Rogue Beta were designed, built and tested by the Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit corporation that operates as a federally funded research and development center.

To compress the development and production schedule to under 18 months, the design uses commercial-off-the-shelf components and sensors, said SMC. The cubesats have a high-speed laser communications system that will enable downlinks of large image files. SMC said the satellites will provide test data for new short-wave infrared band satellites, and will collect data on cloud backgrounds to inform future LEO missions.

“This mission has set a precedent for speed and will also provide us with much needed data for future space development programs,” Col. Dennis Bythewood, program executive officer for space development, said in a statement.

The NG-12 cargo mission also included two National Reconnaissance Office research cubesats. They are part of an NRO program, called IMPACT, that evaluates new technologies in space.

Manifested as AeroCube 14, the two cubesats use the Aerospace Corp.’s AeroCube bus and host 14 technology demonstrations ranging from new materials, such as structural materials and thermal straps, to solar cells, star tracker experiments and on-board processors, the NRO said Nov. 2 in a news release. The cubesats will deploy in about two months from the ISS to their final orbit.

The NRO said there were four other experiments launched aboard NG-12 that are part of the agency’s new Greenlighting program to evaluate the performance and space survivability of new technologies developed by non-traditional commercial partners.