Cygnus mission extended for tests of communications payload

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DENVER — A Cygnus cargo spacecraft that was scheduled to reenter in late February will instead remain in orbit for another month so a payload on the spacecraft can perform additional tests.

The Northrop Grumman NG-12 Cygnus spacecraft, called S.S. Alan Bean by the company, was unberthed from the International Space Station Jan. 31 after spending nearly four months attached to the station. The Cygnus deployed several smallsats after moving away from the station, and at the time the company said the spacecraft would end its mission with a destructive reentry at the end of February.

However, there was no notice of the spacecraft’s reentry by early March, and the Space Track database of objects in orbit, maintained by the Defense Department, showed March 4 that the spacecraft remained in orbit.

In a March 4 statement to SpaceNews, Northrop Grumman said a customer with a payload on the Cygnus sought extra time in orbit, a request that required Northrop Grumman to seek an extension of a Federal Communications Commission license for spacecraft communications.

“The extension of our license by the FCC allows Northrop Grumman to extend our NG-12 mission beyond our original completion date, enabling us to offer increased operational flexibility for our customers,” Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager of Tactical Space at Northrop Grumman, said in the statement. “The NG-12 spacecraft remains in excellent health as we carry out a few more weeks of in-orbit operations.”

Northrop Grumman didn’t disclose the customer, but its request to amend the FCC license for the mission stated that it was for a payload from Lynk, a Virginia-based company working on technology for satellites to enable direct communications with mobile phones. The company, previously known as Ubiquilink, raised $12 million in a seed funding round in July 2019.

Charles Miller, chief executive of Lynk, said March 4 that the extension will allow for additional tests, which have been going well.

“Lynk is producing great results from the space testing our third ‘cell tower in space’ in many different countries around the world,” he said. “We asked Northrop Grumman to extend the Cygnus 12 mission because we wanted to get in more testing time on the payload and testing accomplished in additional countries.”

Miller added that NASA “graciously” agreed to the Cygnus mission extension, and that both Northrop and SEOPS, the company that handed integration of the Lynk payload on the Cygnus, “have bent over backwards” to support testing of the payload.

Northrop demonstrated on the NG-11 Cygnus mission the ability for the spacecraft to remain in orbit for an extended period after departing the ISS. That spacecraft stayed in orbit for four months after leaving the station in August 2019. It successfully completed a series of tests, including showing that Northrop could operate two Cygnus spacecraft successfully once the NG-12 Cygnus launched in November 2019.

The NG-12 Cygnus mission will be extended through April 2, according the request, which the FCC approved March 3.