Northrop Grumman Planning Cygnus Upgrades for Future ISS Support

The Cygnus spacecraft, development and manufactured by Northrop Grumman is currently being used as part of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. It is designed in part to transport supplies to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The Northrop Grumman team is planning upgrades to the Cygnus spacecraft, such as increased payload capacity and increased docking ability, that would help to serve both the ISS as well as future commercial space stations. While these upgrades would help to increase the capabilities and benefits provided by the Cygnus Spacecraft, there are associated security implications and risks that come with the territory.

In its current state of operations, the Cygnus spacecraft can only dock with the ISS via the Canadarm2 robotic arm, rather than actively docking to the station in a manner like SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. One of the upgrades planned for future iterations of the Cygnus would be to change this design, and allow for an active docking system. This would allow for more universal docking that could be used currently on the ISS as well as on future commercial space stations. Along with the increased docking capability comes the ability to provide reboost and station keeping services for both the ISS and future space stations. This reboost functionality will be demonstrated on an upcoming Cygnus resupply mission in early August.

The security implications that come with this service must be handled appropriately. When the Cygnus docks with the ISS or with any other space system, it has access to vital systems within that space station, as well as being able to modify that station’s orbit. In a future where commercial space stations are being employed and allowing third party spacecraft handle their orbit maintenance and station keeping maneuvers, any threat actors who would wish to target the space station, may only need to breach the vehicle that is docking to that station. For these reasons the security and cybersecurity systems in use by the Cygnus and other similar spacecraft must be fully ironed out (ideally within requirement space) for these missions to have success.