Spaceflight Inc. unveils orbital tug for distant missions

An artist’s design shows the Sherpa-ES Orbital Transfer Vehicle. (Spaceflight Inc. Graphics)

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 more deliveries with its own piggyback spacecraft.

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

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

“This mission will demonstrate our comprehensive mission toolkit and our ability to execute complex, revolutionary and exciting missions beyond LEO,” said Grant Bonin, senior vice president of business development at Spaceflight, in a press release. .

Vehicle configuration with Sherpa
In this diagram of the vehicle setup for the IM-2 mission at the South Pole, the Sherpa-ES orbital transfer vehicle is shown in the lower right. Click on the graph for a larger view. (Graphic via Spaceflight Inc.)

GEO Pathfinder’s Sherpa-ES would serve as a secondary payload on a Falcon 9 mission that is to send Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander to the lunar south pole, with a launch expected in the fourth quarter of 2022 at the earliest.

Small payloads can be attached to the Sherpa’s multiple ports for deployment in translunar orbit or low lunar orbit. It is even possible to place satellites in a geosynchronous equatorial orbit around the Earth, or GEO, by a roundabout route.

“Spaceflight will use a launch with a creative trajectory and our best-in-class propulsion system to launch a slingshot around the moon, allowing us to deliver payloads to GEO in an environmentally friendly manner,” Bonin explained.

GEO satellites generally have to be dispatched to their designated locations as part of a multi-stage orbiting process that requires a heavy load of on-board propellant. Grabbing GEO from above, with the momentum provided during the trip around the moon, would reduce the need for additional fuel.

For the GEO Pathfinder mission, one of Spaceflight’s clients is GeoJump, a new company dedicated to providing GEO carpooling opportunities for small satellites. One of the payloads aboard the Sherpa-ES will be the Orbit Fab Space Refueling System. To bring Orbit Fab’s payload to its destination, Sherpa-ES will perform a lunar flyby, then return to Earth to settle into geosynchronous orbit.

“Providing ridesharing assignments to GEO is a real game-changer for the small satellite industry,” said Meagan Crawford, co-founder and managing partner of SpaceFund, which has GeoJump and Orbit Fab in its investment portfolio. “When we pitched the idea of ​​accessing GEO via carpooling with Spaceflight to our portfolio companies – as early as 2022 – the response was overwhelming. What was once a long-term strategy for many of these companies is now a short-term reality. “

Spaceflight said the Sherpa-ES could also be used for deep space deployments.

Sherpa-ES is the latest in a line of next-generation Sherpa orbital tugs which also includes the free-flight Sherpa-FX; Sherpa-LTE, which uses a xenon-based electric propulsion system; and the Sherpa-LTC, which uses a “green” biergol propulsion system. Spaceflight Inc. has optimized the biergol Sherpa-ES propulsion system to produce higher energy for orbit elevation and tilt changes.

Sherpa-FX made its first outing as a secondary Falcon 9 payload in January. In June, another SpaceX satellite rideshare mission featured a Sherpa-LTE as well as a Sherpa-FX. The Sherpa-LTC is expected to debut later this year.

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