Seattle-based space rideshare service provider Spaceflight Inc. revealed its next-generation orbital transfer vehicle today, the Sherpa-FX. The new spacecraft acts as a deployment spacecraft for combined payloads on rideshare rocket launches — essentially providing last-mile transportation from the point at which the launch vehicle deploys the combined payload to the actual desired target deployment orbit of each satellite sharing the ride to space.
The Sherpa-FX will fly its debut mission on an upcoming SpaceX rideshare mission, currently set to take off as early as December 2020. The inaugural flight of the Spaceflight orbital transfer vehicle will carry 16 small spacecraft from a number of different companies and organizations, including one for NASA and one for the University of South Florida’s Institute of Applied Engineering.
This is the first spacecraft that has resulted from Spaceflights’ Sherpa-NG program, which is dedicated to developing and deploying next-generation technology for payload deployment and management from the point of primary payload deployment from a contracted launch vehicle from providers like SpaceX. This is a key step in ensuring that rideshare models work for payload operators, since while combining payloads on a single rocket is great for defraying the cost of launch, it’s far from ideal for actually ensuring your spacecraft ends up in the orbit where it’ll actually be operating.
Companies like Rocket Lab, which employs a dedicated rideshare model for its main business, have their own orbital transfer vehicles, as do operators who deploy larger payloads for single customers. Spaceflight’s entire business is predicated on supplying the technology and services necessary to take companies like SpaceX, as well as Rocket Lab, and offer even more flexibility and optimization in terms of supporting a larger number of deployments from a single launch.
Spaceflight, Inc. was acquired earlier this year by Japanese industrial giant Mitsui & Co, but continues to operate independently out of its U.S. HQ with the same operational goal in mind.