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To Go Better, Sometimes You Transfer: Spaceflight, Inc. Disrupts with OTV

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
September 14, 2022
Sherpa LTC-2 Orbital Transfer Vehicle (Credit: Spaceflight Inc.)

By David Bullock
Staff Writer

Rapid change defines the space industry. Payloads have become smaller and more capable, new satellite launchers have come online, and large boosters have carried scores of satellites at a time on rideshare missions. Now, Orbital Transfer Vehicles (OTVs) are bringing another major change to the industry.

“It enables [our customers to do] new business cases, new science and all sorts of interesting stuff with the new delta-v capability [to change orbits],” Ryan Olcott, a director of mission management at Spaceflight Inc. explained.

Olcott is the mission director for Spaceflight’s Sherpa LTC-2 mission, which was launched along with 51 Starlink satellites by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Sept. 4 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Sherpa LTC-2’s OTV will carry Boeing’s Varuna-TDM as a hosted payload to an orbit 1,000 km (621.4 miles) high after separating from the Falcon 9 second stage at a lower altitude. It was the first Spaceflight Sherpa vehicle fitted with a propulsion system capable of changing its orbit. Boeing needed a higher orbit for its test of a V-band communications system for the company’s 147-satellite broadband satellite constellation.

“Sherpa-LTC’s transportation capabilities coupled with the reliability and consistency of Starlink missions create an ideal solution for the customer’s unique mission needs,” said Curt Blake, CEO and president of Spaceflight. “Our OTV eliminates the barriers that make it more challenging for spacecraft to access uncommon orbits in LEO and beyond. We’re eager to continue to provide innovative, cost-effective, and dependable in-space transportation services for our customers and partners like Astro Digital.”

Sherpa-LTC is the fourth iteration of Sherpa technology, which integrate small satellites with launch vehicles for rideshare missions. Previous versions lacked the propulsion needed to take payloads to higher orbits. Spacecraft in lower orbits of 300 km (186.4 miles) have shorter lifetimes due to the drag produced by Earth’s atmosphere.

Next year, Spaceflight will introduce the Sherpa-ES, a bipropellant OTV that can send payloads to trans- and low-lunar orbits and geosynchronous orbit (GEO). The Sherpa-ES features high delta-v orbit raise and inclination change capabilities and can serve as a hosted payload platform. The Sherpa-ES will provide customers with improved flexibility in planning missions.

Ryan Olcott (Credit: Spaceflight Inc.)

Spaceflight’s Sherpa-ES will launch as part of Intuitive Machines’ IM-2 South Pole Mission to the moon in 2023. Intuitive’s Nova-C lander will deliver 130 kg of payloads to the surface under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Sherpa-ES will offer rideshare deployments of satellites headed for trans-lunar, low-lunar and beyond geosynchronous equatorial orbits on the mission.

Spaceflight Inc. has also expanded its reach with an agreement to launch aboard Arianespace’s Vega-C booster.

“We continue to see growing customer interest in launches that can deliver a variety of payload types and sizes to specific orbital destinations,” Blake said. “Our proven propulsive OTVs allow us to provide unprecedented flexibility and in-space transportation services. We’re excited to build on our already strong relationship with SAB and expand the Spaceflight portfolio of launch partners to include Vega for our family of Sherpa vehicles.”

While OTV technology is the latest technology available from Spaceflight, the company has adapted to industry changes since it was founded in 2011 to working on building CubeSats. The company began brokering launchers for other parties in 2018.

“Things really started to shift from doing a few CubeSats to a lot more brokered work to doing a lot more mission integration, hardware planning and a lot more vendor management, [which brought] in hardware from all sorts of sources to build these big, complex rideshare missions,” said Olcott.

“We are trying to keep our hands in our engagement with as many launch vehicles and as many means of getting to space as possible for customer spacecraft,” Olcott added.

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