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Spaceflight’s latest orbital tug debuts on SpaceX launch

A new type of controllable orbital transfer vehicle built by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. made its debut today when SpaceX sent dozens of satellites into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX’s Transporter-5 mission, which is part of the company’s rideshare program, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2:35 p.m. ET (11:35 a.m. PT):to send 59 small spacecraft to space. Minutes after stage separation, the Falcon 9’s reusable first-stage booster made a rare land-based touchdown at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, not far from the launch site.

The piggyback spacecraft were to be deployed from the rocket’s upper stage into low Earth orbit, or LEO, over the course of a little more than an hour. One of those spacecraft is Spaceflight’s Sherpa-AC1, the latest in the company’s line of Sherpa orbital transfer vehicles, also known as space tugs.

Sherpa tugs are designed to go out from their launch vehicles and deliver an assortment of small satellites to different orbits. The tugs can also carry hosted payloads, which do their thing while remaining attached to the tug.

The Sherpa-AC adds capabilities for attitude control (hence the “AC”) and tracking. An onboard flight computer keeps track of the tug’s location in space, and a command and control system can keep the spacecraft pointed in the right direction. There’s also a two-way communication system, an electrical power system and a basic thermal control system.

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Spaceflight Inc. encounters successes and setbacks

Thanks to its role in handling pre-launch logistics, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. can claim a share of the credit for two successful satellite deployments that took place within 24 hours this week — but it’s also facing a rift in relations with SpaceX, one of its longtime launch partners.

First, about the successes: On Friday, SpaceX launched 40 satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket, as part of a mission known as Transporter-4. Spaceflight Inc. handled the arrangements for flying several of those satellites.

Spaceflight also played a supporting role in today’s launch of a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Two Earth observation satellites were successfully sent into orbit for BlackSky, a Virginia company that was once Spaceflight’s corporate sibling and still has a significant workforce based in Seattle. Spaceflight Inc.’s role and the Seattle angle were recognized in Rocket Lab’s mission patch for the launch, which includes the Space Needle in its design.

“Thanks for another great launch day!” Spaceflight told Rocket Lab in a tweet. In contrast, Spaceflight’s interactions with SpaceX have become less cordial and more complicated over the past few months.

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Seattle’s Space Needle rises on a space mission patch

What could be more fitting than to put Seattle’s Space Needle on the patch for an actual space mission?

Even though this particular mission is due to be launched half a world away, there’s more than one Seattle connection to the Rocket Lab mission that’s due for liftoff as early as April 1.

The payloads for the launch from Rocket Lab’s base on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula are two satellites built by a Seattle-area manufacturer, LeoStella, for BlackSky’s Earth-observing constellation. LeoStella is a joint venture co-owned by Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian venture; and BlackSky, which is based in the Washington, D.C., area but has a Seattle office.

Most significantly, preparations for the launch were handled by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc., which specializes in making the arrangements for putting small satellites like BlackSky’s spacecraft into orbit.

On the patch for the mission, whimsically dubbed “Without Mission a Beat,” the Space Needle rises to the right of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle.

“It’s a great patch, no?” Jodi Sorensen, Spaceflight Inc.’s vice president of marketing, said in a tweet. “The Needle’s a nod to @SpaceflightInc, and we love it!”

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Astra bounces back with Alaska satellite launch

California-based Astra sent a batch of satellites into orbit for Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. from an Alaska launch pad today, a just a little more than a month after Astra’s launch failure in Florida.

Astra’s LV0009 launch vehicle lifted off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska’s Kodiak Island at 9:22 a.m. PT, and about an hour later, Astra CEO Chris Kemp reported that the mission was a success.

“Our customers are calling us and indicating that the satellites are alive, they’re talking, which means that they’ve been successfully deployed,” he said during a webcast. “The flight was nominal. We were able to precisely deliver to the targeted orbit and inclination at orbital velocity. … It’s been a long journey.”

Astra went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange last July, thanks to a blank-check merger orchestrated by Seattle-area telecom pioneer Craig McCaw. The company’s status as a publicly traded company led to some ups and downs today as investors waited for word about the mission’s success or failure — and despite notching a success, Astra’s share price ended the day slightly down, at $3.49.

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NASA puts 12 companies on its latest launch list

NASA has chosen a dozen companies to provide commercial launch services for relatively small-scale space missions over the next five years, including two ventures with Washington state connections.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. will be eligible for shares of the $300 million that’s been set aside for fixed-price contracts under a program known as NASA’s Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare Missions, or VADR.

Although Blue Origin’s corporate headquarters are in Kent, Wash., NASA is listing Blue Origin Florida as one of its VADR choices. That reflects the fact that orbital launches would be conducted from Florida using the company’s New Glenn rocket, which is still under development. Spaceflight Inc., meanwhile, specializes in organizing rideshare missions that make use of other companies’ rockets.

VADR is a successor to NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program, and focuses on launching payloads ranging from CubeSats no bigger than a shoebox to somewhat larger spacecraft that are built for risk-tolerant Class D missions.

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Companies join forces on orbital communications

Two Seattle-area space companies have forged an alliance to facilitate space-to-ground communications for orbital transfer vehicles.

Under the terms of a ground station service agreement, Redmond, Wash.-based RBC Signals will support ground-based communications for multiple missions involving Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc.’s Sherpa orbital tugs.

The deal came into play during the successful deployment of satellites from Spaceflight’s Sherpa-LTE1 transfer vehicle, which was sent into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in June.

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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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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.”