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Spaceflight ships out its Sherpas for orbital deliveries

AUBURN, Wash. — A pair of space tugs are beginning their journey from Spaceflight Inc.’s clean room, south of Seattle, to low Earth orbit.

Along the way, the Sherpa orbital transportation vehicles and their 36 ride-along spacecraft will be loaded up on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and fired off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida as early as this month.

Spaceflight’s Sherpa vehicles are pioneering a relatively recent innovation in the satellite launch industry. Such space tugs can go up on a single launch and send a variety of rideshare satellites to a variety of orbits. The first Sherpa-FX model successfully deployed 13 satellites and carried two additional piggyback payloads during SpaceX’s Transporter-1 mission in January.

This time around, there are a couple of added twists: Two Sherpas — FX2 and LTE1 — will ride on the upcoming mission, which is called Transporter-2. And LTE1 is the first Sherpa to be equipped with an electric propulsion system that’s being provided by California-based Apollo Fusion. Electric propulsion is the real-life parallel to the ion drives that are standard fare in science-fiction sagas like Star Wars and Star Trek.

Apollo’s electric propulsion system, and a chemical propulsion system that’s due to make its debut later this year, will give the Sherpas more options for satellite deployments. That’s the bottom line for Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc., which focuses on managing launch logistics for small-satellite customers.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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