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Spaceflight unveils orbital tug made for far-out missions

When a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sends a robotic lander to the moon’s south pole, perhaps as early as next year, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. plans to make a few extra deliveries with its own own piggyback spacecraft.

The mission, known as GEO Pathfinder, will represent the first in-space outing for a new type of orbital transfer vehicle called the Sherpa Escape, or Sherpa-ES.

“Orbital” might not be exactly the right term, since the craft is designed to go well beyond low Earth orbit to zoom around the moon and back, potentially deploying payloads at every step along the way.

“This mission will demonstrate our complete mission toolbox and ability to execute complex, groundbreaking and exciting missions beyond LEO,” Grant Bonin, senior vice president of business development at Spaceflight, said today in a news release.

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SpaceX rocket launches 88 spacecraft, then aces landing

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sent dozens of satellites into orbit today with a launch that featured an unusual on-the-ground touchdown for its first-stage booster.

Eighty-eight spacecraft were packed aboard the rocket, which took off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida heading for a pole-to-pole orbit. That sun-synchronous orbit is typically preferred for Earth observation satellites, of which there were plenty.

Two of the spacecraft were Sherpa orbital transfer vehicles built by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. One of the Sherpas used a electric propulsion system to maneuver in space and deploy satellites into different orbits. The other was a free-flier.

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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.

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NASA reserves a satellite ride on Spaceflight space tug

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’s won a contract to handle the launch logistics for a pair of NASA satellites that will study the factors behind atmospheric drag.

The twin CubeSats for a mission known as Low-Latitude Ionosphere / Thermosphere Enhancements in Density, or LLITED, are to be lofted into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket around the end of this year. That launch that will mark the first use of Spaceflight’s Sherpa-LTC orbital transfer vehicle, also known as an OTV or space tug.

In January, a different type of Spaceflight space tug, the Sherpa-FX, successfully deployed more than a dozen spacecraft after a Falcon 9 launch. The Sherpa-LTC represents a step above the FX because it has its own in-orbit propulsion system.

The chemical-based thruster system, built for Spaceflight by Benchmark Space Systems, makes it possible for the Sherpa-LTC to shift between different orbital locations. Spaceflight’s mission plan calls for an initial round of satellite deployments, followed by a maneuver that will set the Sherpa up for deploying the LLITED satellites in a different orbit.

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SpaceX puts a record 143 satellites in orbit

SpaceX set a record for the number of satellites sent into orbit by a single rocket, and that’s not the only milestone reached during today’s Transporter-1 mission.

The Falcon 9 rocket launch also marked the orbital debut of Sherpa-FX, a satellite transfer vehicle made and managed by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc.

SpaceX had postponed the launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida for a day due to concerns about the potential for lightning. Today’s weather was also “a bit challenging,” launch commentator Andy Tran said, but all systems were go tor today’s liftoff at 10 a.m. ET (7 a.m. PT).

Minutes after launch, the Falcon’s second stage separated from the first-stage booster as planned. The booster, which had been used for four previous launches, flew itself back over the Atlantic Ocean to land on a drone ship dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You.” Meanwhile, the second stage continued its ascent to orbit, loaded with satellites.

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Spaceflight goes big on orbital transfer vehicles

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. today unveiled two new options for its Sherpa orbital transfer vehicle — one that uses an environmentally friendly chemical thruster system to help get small satellites where they need to go, and another that’s powered by an electric propulsion system.

Such options add propulsive capability to the standard Sherpa-FX model, which is due to make its first flight as a secondary payload for a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch by as early as December.

For years, Spaceflight has served as a broker and concierge for other people’s payloads — basically bundling small satellites for launch on rockets ranging from the Falcon 9 to Rocket Lab’s Electron and India’s PSLV.

The company hit a significant milestone in 2018 when it arranged for the launch of 64 satellites on a single Falcon 9. During that mission, a pair of free-flying spacecraft served as deployment platforms.

That blazed a trail for the Sherpa program, and the effort got an extra boost this year after Spaceflight Inc.’s acquisition by Japan’s Mitsui & Co. “Really, the next step in building out this cislunar space transportation company that we care to become is the Sherpa program,” Grant Bonin, Spaceflight’s senior vice president of business development, told me. “Sherpa was an early vision of the company, but we really revived it this year.”

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