Firefly buys orbital tug company Spaceflight

Firefly Aerospace announced yesterday that it has purchased the orbital tug company Spaceflight, and will now offer its Sherpa tug as part of its launch services.

Spaceflight Inc. was known as a leader in arranging launches of small satellites on small launch vehicles or as secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles, deploying more than 460 payloads. Spaceflight had also developed its own series of orbital transfer vehicles called Sherpa, using a mix of chemical and electric propulsion systems.

Spaceflight has worked with a wide range of launch providers, although at one point it ran afoul of one of its largest partners, SpaceX. However, Firefly said that Spaceflight’s services will, going forward, be used only with Firefly’s vehicles.

Though Firefly will honor the contracts Spaceflight arranged for smallsats to be launched on other rockets, it appears it will be no longer be acting as a launch arranger. Instead, it will offer smallsats a package launch deal, including both its Alpha rocket and the tug. For this deal to pay off however Firefly has got to get Alpha operational. The two launches scheduled for this summer should do this, assuming they fly with no problems.

German rocket startup Isar Aerospace gets first American customer

The German rocket startup Isar Aerospace, which hopes to complete the first launch of its Spectrum rocket this year, has signed its first launch contract with an American company, the satellite broker and space tug company Spaceflight.

U.S.-based launch services provider Spaceflight said Jan. 25 it has booked a dedicated launch in 2026 from Isar Aerospace, the German rocket developer aiming to perform the first test flight of its Spectrum vehicle this year. The mission is slated to lift off from Isar’s launchpad in Andøya, Norway, to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).

Their agreement also includes an option for an additional dedicated launch in 2025, which Isar chief commercial officer Stella Guillen told SpaceNews could also use a launchpad it is developing at the Guiana Space Center near Kourou, French Guiana.

Spaceflight has been scrambling to find rockets for its tugs, since SpaceX announced in March 2022 it would no longer carry them. It signed a deal with Arianespace to fly on its Vega rocket, but launch failures have delayed its launch.

Isar is one of three German rocket startups vying for business. The race to be the first to launch remains very tight.

Satellite about to burn up because Sherpa orbital tug has done nothing

Capitalism in space: A Boeing cubesat satellite launched last month is about to burn up as it returns to Earth because the Spaceflight Sherpa orbital tug that was supposed to raise its orbit has as yet done nothing.

Spaceflight planned to use a chemical propulsion system on the Sherpa, provided by Benchmark Space Systems, to raise the orbit of the vehicle to an altitude of 1,000 kilometers. The Sherpa payload, initially not disclosed by Spaceflight, is a V-band communications demonstration by Boeing called Varuna.

However, tracking information from the U.S. Space Force shows that Sherpa has yet to raise its orbit. Atmospheric drag has caused that orbit to gradually decay, and the spacecraft was most recently tracked in an orbit of 283 by 296 kilometers. That raised concerns that the spacecraft could reenter in a matter of weeks if it does not start firing its thrusters.

Spaceflight officials explain the lack of action is because they are still “commissioning” the tug, whatever that means. It also appears that problems was this same propulsion system caused SpaceX to ban Spaceflight in March as a customer on future rideshare launches.

SpaceX ends future business with launch services company Spaceflight

Capitalism in space: For reasons not explained, SpaceX has ended all further business with the launch services company Spaceflight, which acts to find and integrate smallsats from many different companies into a package for launch.

Spaceflight also provides many of those smallsats with a small tug, dubbed Sherpa-LTC, to move them into their preferred orbit once deployed from the Falcon 9 upper stage. It looks like there have recently been problems with this tug that Spaceflight has not been able to resolve to SpaceX’s satisfaction.

The propulsion leak on Spaceflight’s Sherpa-LTC vehicle was discovered about three weeks before the Jan. 13 SpaceX Falcon 9 Transporter-3 launch. Root-cause analysis of the leak traced the problem to an oxidizer circuit in the propulsion system, which worked as designed but vented some trapped liquid due to a design flaw.

…Regarding the upcoming launch, Spaceflight began working with SpaceX to address concerns about “the analysis and test results of Sherpa and its customer payloads” as soon as it became aware of them.

Despite Spaceflight’s “best efforts, SpaceX chose not to fly the Sherpa vehicle until the analysis and test approaches could be better understood,” Sorensen said. “We continue to work with SpaceX to understand their decision and address any concerns for future missions.”

It appears, though not confirmed, that SpaceX is not just worried about Sherpa, but is also concerned about Spaceflight’s quality control efforts, and that might be the reason it has reject Spaceflight from future launches.

New space tug to launch in January ’22

Capitalism in space: A ew space tug, designed and built by the company Spaceflight, is set to launch in January ’22 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and deploy 13 satellites in two different orbits.

In a mission Spaceflight dubs SXRS-6, the OTV [orbital transfer vehicle] will first place four microsatellites and five cubesats in Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO) at 525 kilometers altitude, after being deployed from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

About a month later, following various commissioning and system tests, Sherpa-LTC1 will use its bipropellant, green propulsion subsystem from Benchmark Space Systems to maneuver to 500 kilometers, where it will deploy its remaining four cubesats.

This technology gives cubesat owners greater flexibility. Even if they launch as a secondary payload that is not placed in the right orbit, the tug can still get them to their preferred orbit.