Private aerospace remains dominated by several top players, including SpaceX and Blue Origin. But, several companies specializing in defense are beefing up their endeavors as well.
While it might not be the biggest space or defense company, Northrop Grumman has been making significant strides in the space area.
Coasting On Its Government Relationships
Northrop Grumman has silently been growing its space capabilities as the company is looking to become a much bigger competitor in the industry. Over the past few weeks, its efforts have yielded some results.
Last month, the company sent two Mission Extension Vehicles into orbit, offering station-keeping services for geostationary satellites that required additional fueling. At the same time, the company confirmed that it is looking to launch a new servicing vehicle for satellites.
So far, Northrop has six undisclosed customers who have signed up to get their satellites serviced by its Mission Robotic Vehicle. It is especially interesting as the vehicle itself isn’t set to go live until 2024. Joe Anderson, Northrop’s vice president of operations and business development, confirmed that plans are still very much underway for the vehicle’s launch. Also, the undisclosed customers remain committed to the deal.
Northrop's Mission Robotic Vehicle is a second-generation vehicle that was developed by Space Logistics - one of its subsidiaries. It combines the company's Mission Extension Vehicle, which already performs commercial operations, with a robotic payload built by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The vehicle’s primary commercial mission is to install small propulsion devices - known as mission extension pods. One of the pods will be inserted into the rear end of a satellite’s propulsion system, with Anderson claiming that it could add up to six years to the lifespan of most geostationary satellites.
Anderson added that the six customers have already signed term sheets for seven mission extension pods. Once the contracts have been finalized, Northrop said that it would publish their identities.
Northrop's first vehicle is slated for a launch in 2024. It is expected to carry three pods to space. Thanks to the company’s contracts, it has already booked the vehicle’s manifest up until the middle of 2026. Space Logistics is also expecting to install up to five mission extension pods annually.
Interestingly, the Mission Extension Vehicle isn’t the only project currently in the works between Northrop and DARPA. In mid-September, the DARPA Blackjack program awarded Northrop a contract to develop the second phase of an advanced, software-defined positioning, navigating, and timing (PNT) payload. The contract includes options to build additional units that will eventually get to space.
Per reports, the PNT payload is being developed primarily by Northrop’s Future PNT Systems Operating Unit, which is based in California. The team has been working with the DARPA Tactical Technology Office, helping the latter achieve its goal of developing strong and reliable national security space capabilities from Low Earth Orbit.
Speaking on the contract’s awarding, said Dr. Nicholas Paraskevopoulos, a senior vice president of emerging capabilities development at Northrop, said:
“Northrop Grumman’s software-defined Positioning, Navigation and Timing technology will offer military users an agile new signal from LEO that is not dependent on existing satellite navigation systems. Warfighters depend on assured PNT for traditional missions like force projection and joint operations, but also for emerging autonomous and distributed missions.”
The PNT payload system will rely heavily on Northrop's Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). The second phase of development is valued at about $13 million, with Northrop expected to handle emulation, design, and development.
Angel Investing For Northrop
Besides its impressive work with defense and aerospace, Northrop has also expanded its capacity through investments. In September, the company joined several others to complete the series A funding round for Orbit Fab - a space startup based in San Francisco. The funding round was valued at $10 million, which will go a long way in helping Orbit Fab to achieve its goal of being the leader in orbital refueling.
Other investors in the round included Lockheed Martin, Asymmetry Ventures, Audacious Venture Partners, and many more. The cash will primarily go towards funding a refueling trial that is estimated to launch in late 2022. Orbit is looking to send two refueling shuttles to space, which will perform a three-step dock. From there, the shuttles will transfer their fuel payload and undock.
It has been an impressive few weeks for Northrop Grumman and its desire to be a juggernaut in the aerospace industry. For now, the company definitely seems to be treading in the right direction.