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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Space continues to be one of the major booms to Huntsville’s economy – after all, Huntsville is the Rocket City.

And the Space and Missile Defense Symposium even has “space” in its name.

Boeing, NASA, and Northrop Grumman all continue to reach for the stars.

The Northrop Grumman-built PIRPL experiment launched to the International Space Station on Tuesday, August 10.

Prototype Infrared Payload (PIRPL)

The Northrop Grumman-built Prototype Infrared Payload (PIRPL) launched aboard the company’s Cygnus spacecraft just after 5 p.m. Tuesday and will be transferred to the International Space Station in late August.

PIRPL, developed and launched using parts pulled right off commercial shelves, will be testing just over five different filters to better examine the Earth under infrared light.

The project moved from development to launch in 18 months, and the team had to overcome a couple of stumbling blocks.

PIRPL’s design team had to compensate for shaking aboard the International Space Station (and future spacecraft) – much like a digital or smartphone camera at full zoom, shaking can make images blurry.

The team implemented changes to the sensors to reduce motion, as well as digital technologies to improve image framing.

At low earth orbit, where the International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration GOES weather satellites orbit, the infrared sensor aboard PIRPL is affected by relatively high heat from the atmosphere.

The team had to build in a Northrop Grumman prototype micro cooler to ensure PIRPL operates effectively on-orbit and captures images at different infrared light ranges and in near real-time.

Cooling failures in orbit can seriously reduce a satellite’s capability, as demonstrated during testing of the GOES-S satellite.

The imager aboard the GOES-S experience an issue with the cooling system shortly after it launched in 2018, initially limiting usage of the infrared images (commonly used by forecasters at night, when tracking hurricanes, and following severe weather development) to 12 hours each day.

Various fixes were implemented, such as changing the orbit and updating the software aboard the satellite to workaround the problem, and the satellite performance was improved, opening infrared imagery for use from 20-24 hours a day, depending on the season.

According to Northrop Grumman, one major application possible if the technology enters full production includes earth science projects and studies, such as tracking forest fires, volcanoes, and other natural phenomena, along with recording climate data.

Northrop Grumman officials also suggest the infrared data gathered could be used for mapping the Earth and tracking objects orbiting the Earth at low altitudes (similar heights to the International Space Station, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric GOES weather satellites, and the Hubble Space Telescope) in the future.

Space Launch System and Beyond

NASA officials said the Space Launch System continues to progress rapidly towards the uncrewed Artemis 1 launch.

NASA has stacked the rocket up to the point where the Orion crew capsule will be connected as of August, and Artemis 1 is expected to launch later in 2021.

The Boeing-built core stage was stacked at the Kennedy’s Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building in June, and Boeing is already thinking ahead to further development on future SLS development.

Boeing finalized the design and layout for the Exploration Upper Stage in December 2020.

The Exploration Upper Stage will replace the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage on future SLS missions, and will be the stage that propels the four-crew Orion capsule to the Moon, along with just over 11 tons of cargo; the role was fulfilled by the Saturn IV-B during the Apollo Program.

Boeing is building both stages at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

When it rockets off the launch pad, the SLS will stand 322 feet tall, 41 feet shorter than the Saturn V, but will deliver just over 1 million more pounds of thrust (8.8 million pounds vs. the Saturn V’s 7.65 million pounds).

The first crewed Artemis mission, dubbed Artemis II, is planning to launch in 2023 for a lunar flyby mission similar to Apollo 8.