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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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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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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.

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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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Spaceflight signs up for Firefly rocket launch

Firefly stage separation
An artist’s conception shows Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket during stage separation. (Firefly Illustration)

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. has signed an agreement to secure most of the payload mass on a Firefly Aerospace rocket that’s due to lift off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2021.

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Spaceflight Industries to sell launch business

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 Industries says it has signed a deal to sell Spaceflight Inc., its satellite rideshare launch subsidiary, to one of Japan’s largest trading companies.

The definitive share purchase agreement, reached with Mitsui & Co. Ltd. in partnership with Yamasa Co. Ltd., will have to be reviewed over the next few months by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to evaluate national security aspects of the acquisition — but the companies expect the deal to be approved by midyear.

Financial terms were not disclosed.

Spaceflight Industries said it would leverage the capital from the Spaceflight Inc. deal to accelerate the growth of BlackSky, its geospatial intelligence business. BlackSky already has four of its own Earth-observing satellites in orbit and plans to add eight more to the constellation this year. Four of those satellites are due to be sent into orbit on the maiden launch of India’s SSLV rocket.

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Spaceflight helps out with shooting-star satellite

ALE-2 satellite
An artist’s conception shows the ALE-2 shooting-star satellite in orbit. (ALE / Spaceflight Illustration)

Seattle-based Spaceflight says it’s handling the pre-launch logistics for a Japanese satellite that’s designed to spray artificial shooting stars into the sky.

Tokyo-based ALE’s spacecraft is just one of seven satellites due to be sent into orbit from New Zealand as early as Nov. 25, aboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle.

It’ll be the 10th Electron launch, earning the nickname “Running Out of Fingers.” It’ll also be the first launch to test the guidance and navigation hardware as well as the sensors that Rocket Lab will eventually use to help make the Electron’s first stage recoverable.

No recovery will be attempted during this mission.

The shooting-star satellite, ALE-2, is already making headlines in New Zealand. It’s designed to release particles from its sun-synchronous orbit below the International Space Station’s altitude, according to a timed schedule. When the particles re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, they’re supposed to burn up and create the appearance of meteors as seen from the ground.

In addition to the entertainment factor, ALE says scientists participating in the Sky Canvas project will be able to study the path of the particles during re-entry. That could lead to more accurate predictions of the path of satellites during orbital decay, and perhaps contribute to studies of weather and climate change.

“This launch gets us much closer to realizing the world’s first man-made shooting star,” ALE’s CEO, Lena Okajima, said in a news release. “We really appreciate Spaceflight`s support and attention to our mission, and we’re honored to take this big step with them.”

Some observers say the Sky Canvas project will be a distraction for astronomers as well as an attraction for skywatchers. Similar examples include the “Humanity Star” disco-ball satellite that Rocket Lab launched in 2018, and SpaceX’s first batch of 60 Starlink satellites.

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