Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The US Launch Year Began Today

As mentioned in Friday night's post, SpaceX started 2023 off this morning at 9:56 AM EST with the new year’s first orbital launch, and the second-largest rideshare mission in company history.  Carrying 114 payloads for dozens of paying customers, the payloads were distributed into parking orbits within a few hours after liftoff.  

A highlight of the mission is that Transporter-6 carried a handful of ‘space tugs’ developed by five separate companies.  These are being developed specifically to take small satellites launched into the same orbit on this sort of ride share mission and lift them to the desired orbit.  

At a minimum, Transporter-6’s expansive payload roster included Launcher’s first Orbiter space tug, Epic Aerospace’s first CHIMERA space tug, Momentus Space’s second Vigoride space tug, and two D-Orbit ION space tugs. While their capabilities vary significantly, all of the space tags or transfer vehicles manifested on the mission have a similar purpose: transporting satellites launched as rideshare payloads from their rocket’s one-size-fits-all parking orbit to an orbit more optimized for each spacecraft’s mission.

Three tweets copied from the Teslarati story and pasted into a new graphic. 

The space tug concept is how Rocket Lab's Photon got CAPSTONE to its lunar Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit and it's a concept that could create a whole new industry.  Aside from Rocket Lab, only a few providers have successfully demonstrated space tugs with propulsion systems, and most of those proven options only allow for small orbit tweaks.  One tug built by Spaceflight Inc., their Sherpa-LTC2, has partially demonstrated the ability to climb from ~300 kilometers to more than 1000 kilometers. 

Future tugs could enable routine changes on the order of hundreds or even thousands of kilometers for multiple payloads per flight. Many prospective providers – including Momentus and Epic – hope to follow up their simpler prototypes (and follow in Rocket Lab’s footsteps) with tugs capable of carrying satellites to high Earth orbits, the Moon, and deep space.

This is the first launch of the year and for more interesting things about it, the Teslarati article and its links to Twitter are a good start.  Their next launch will be Sunday from the same launch complex, SLC-40.  That mission is to launch the next batch of satellites for OneWeb and the booster will return to Landing Zone 1 on the Cape.  It's from SLC-40 because LC-39A is setting up for a Falcon Heavy mission, USSF-67, Thursday, January 12th at 5:39 PM EST.  I'm pretty sure this is the closest spacing between Falcon Heavy missions that they've ever done: the last FH was on November 1st, so just over two months.  There's a backlog of FH missions waiting for their payloads. 


  1. With respect to Spaceflight, Inc Sherpa LTC2, what constitutes 'partially demonstrated'?

    Just saying the words Landing Zone (not a runway) is itself magical. It seems since HG Wells it was always in front of us that a rocket would one day land on its tail feathers. And now, here we are to witness it. Not once or thrice, but time after time. To become so ubiquitous that generations already born might think was it ever any other way. Rocketry moving at the speed of plaid. Just wow.

    1. With respect to Spaceflight, Inc Sherpa LTC2, what constitutes 'partially demonstrated'?

      The source didn't explain that. Purely guessing, I think it means they did a demonstration of the Space Tug itself but without a payload, and were able to get the desired performance putting the tug into a different orbit.

  2. Kinda fun watching the mini- and micro-satellites go "ptui!" out of their box launchers. Some were stable, some were floppy. Those space tugs are gonna get bigger and more useful with all the "dead" satellites parked in orbit...