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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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GeekWire

Two BlackSky satellites lost due to launch failure

Two satellites for BlackSky’s Earth observation constellation were lost today when the second stage of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle suffered an anomaly, just minutes after liftoff from New Zealand.

Rocket Lab said the mission failure was under investigation. “The issue occurred shortly after stage two ignition,” the company said in a tweet.

The live stream for launch showed what appeared to be a successful launch at 11:11 p.m. New Zealand time (4:11 a.m. PT), followed by a stage separation that went according to plan. However, it looked as if the second stage’s rocket engine shut down and failed to push the satellites to orbit.

The satellites were built by Tukwila, Wash.-based LeoStella for BlackSky, which splits its staff between offices in Seattle and Herndon, Va. Pre-launch logistics for the mission were handled by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc.

“We are deeply sorry to our customers Spaceflight Inc. and BlackSky for the loss of their payloads,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “We understand the monumental effort that goes into every spacecraft and we feel their loss and disappointment.”

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GeekWire

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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Cosmic Space

Space Notes: From satellite deals to a new fellowship

— Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’s signed an agreement with HawkEye 360 to support multiple launches of the Virginia-based company’s radio-frequency mapping satellites.

Spaceflight will provide mission management services for HawkEye 360’s Cluster 4, 5 and 6 launches. Each cluster consists of three 65-pound satellites that fly in formation to gather a wide variety of geolocation tracking data. SpaceX sent HawkEye 360’s first cluster into orbit in 2018 as part of a dedicated-rideshare mission organized by Spaceflight. Cluster 2 is scheduled for launch as soon as December on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that’s equipped with Spaceflight’s Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is one of several launch vehicles in Spaceflight’s portfolio for rideshare satellite missions. Other rocket offerings include Northrop Grumman’s Antares, Rocket Lab’s Electron, Arianespace’s Vega, Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha and India’s PSLV. Spaceflight has launched more than 300 satellites across 32 rideshare missions to date.

— Seattle-based RBC Signals has been engaged by California-based Swarm Technologies to host ground-based antennas for Swarm’s satellite IoT communications constellation.

The antennas will support Swarm’s next wave of satellites, part of a 150-unit constellation that’s due to go into full operation by the end of 2021. The first antenna included in the agreement has been placed on Alaska’s North Slope and is supporting the latest group of satellites to be deployed. Those 12 satellites, each about the size of a slice of bread, were sent into orbit on Sept. 2 by an Arianespace Vega rocket.

Plans call for additional Swarm antennas to be activated and hosted by RBC Signals in strategic locations around the world. RBC Signals, founded in 2015, takes advantage of company-owned as well as partner-owned antennas to provide communication services to government and commercial satellite operators.

— Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited says it has completed a critical design review for its MakerSat payload, which is due to fly aboard a NASA mission aimed at testing in-space servicing and manufacturing technologies in the mid-2020s.

MakerSat will be part of Maxar Technologies’ Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER), one of the payloads attached to NASA’s OSAM-1 spacecraft. (OSAM stands for On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing). SPIDER is designed to assemble a communications antenna in orbit, while MakerSat will manufacture a 32-foot-long, carbon-fiber construction beam.

The project will test techniques for use on future space missions. “MakerSat will demonstrate the manufacturing of the 2-by-4’s that can be used to construct large telescopes for studying exoplanets and to assemble future space stations,” Tethers Unlimited’s founder and president, Rob Hoyt, said in a news release.

— The application window has opened for the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, a new program that offers paid internships in the aerospace industry for Black and African-American college students.

The fellowship program is modeled after the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship, which offers summer internships to undergraduate as well as graduate students who are passionate about commercial spaceflight; and the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which focuses on women and gender-minority students in aerospace. (GeekWire participated in the first year of the Brooke Owens Fellowship Program.)

Seattle-area companies participating in the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship Program include Blue Origin, Boeing and Stratolaunch. The program is named after Patti Grace Smith, who was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, became the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial spaceflight, and passed away in 2016 at the age of 68.

Check out the fellowship’s website for eligibility requirements and application procedures. The application deadline for internships in 2021 is Nov. 15.

This report was first published on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Spaceflight and Tethers team up on deorbiting system

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’ll use a notebook-sized deorbiting system developed by another Seattle-area company to deal with the disposal of its Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle.

The NanoSat Terminator Tape Deorbit System, built by Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited, is designed to take advantage of orbital drag on a 230-foot-long strip of conductive tape to hasten the fiery descent of a spacecraft through Earth’s atmosphere. The system has been tested successfully on nanosatellites over the past year, and another experiment is planned for later this year.

Tethers Unlimited’s system provides an affordable path to reducing space debris, which is becoming a problem of greater concern as more small satellites go into orbit. Statistical models suggest that there are nearly a million bits of debris bigger than half an inch (1 centimeter) whizzing in Earth orbit.

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GeekWire

Spaceflight signs rideshare launch deal with SpaceX

SpaceX SSO-A launch
One of Spaceflight Industries’ most notable projects was the launch of 64 satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December 2018. (SpaceX Photo)

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’s signed an agreement to secure spots for secondary payloads on several of SpaceX’s rockets due for launch through the end of 2021.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Japanese firms finish acquisition of Spaceflight

SpaceX SSO-A launch
One of Spaceflight’s most notable acccomplishments was the launch of 64 satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December 2018. (SpaceX Photo)

Japan’s Mitsui & Co., working in partnership with Yamasa Co. Ltd., has completed the acquisition of Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. from its parent company, Spaceflight Industries.

Today’s announcement of the transaction’s completion follows up on February’s announcement of the sale for an undisclosed amount. Spaceflight Industries’ other subsidiary, BlackSky Global, isn’t part of the transaction and will continue to operate as a privately held company with offices in Seattle and Herndon, Va.

Spaceflight Industries also has a 50% share in LeoStella, a satellite manufacturing company based in Tukwila, Wash. The other half of that joint venture is owned by Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian aerospace company.

Mitsui and Yamasa will similarly split ownership of Spaceflight Inc. as a 50-50 joint venture, operating independently with its headquarters remaining in Seattle.

The sale brings a parting of the ways for Spaceflight Inc., which focuses on arranging launch services for rideshare satellites; and BlackSky, which is building a satellite constellation for Earth observation and provides geospatial data analysis tools.

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