Seattle-based Spaceflight, Inc. will make a big leap in its business of shuttling small payloads into space with the launch next year of its first SHERPA mission. The company has helped get some three dozen payloads into space, but its president, Curt Blake, says this one will be different.
“Up until now we’ve integrated the satellites on board the launch vehicle,” he explains. “This time we’re integrating a whole bunch onto the SHERPA ring.” The ring—a “secondary payload adapter ring”—has five ports around its outside, each of which can carry one or several payloads, depending on their size and configuration. Payloads can be CubeSats or NanoSats as light as a couple of kilograms, or larger satellites up to 300 kilograms. The SHERPA is capable of carrying up to 1,500 kilograms total, though for the maiden mission, set for the third quarter of 2015, it will max out at 1,200 kilograms.
Spaceflight fills an interesting niche in the commercial space business, piggybacking on planned launches and brokering rides to smaller payloads for which it doesn’t make sense to launch on their own.
“The real selling point of this is that secondary payloads generally get a cheaper ride to space, because the primary payload is the one that drives the schedule,” Blake explains. Even more importantly, the folks sending up the primary payload decide where it’s going to go, which isn’t always the ideal place for the secondaries.
“Because of that we developed the SHERPA, which lets us be deployed where the primary is getting deployed, but then we can move around to a place that’s more suitable for the secondary payload,” Blake says.
Following next year’s launch, Blake says Spaceflight is planning two launches each year, one to low-Earth orbit, and the other to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
The first SHERPA will not have its own propulsion system, but future models will, enabling even greater maneuverability and precision in delivering satellites to their intended destinations.
Spaceflight, Inc. is looking beyond the orbit of Earth. Blake says they’re already talking about taking payloads to lunar orbit—it’s a relatively easy proposition to get to the Moon from GTO—and adds that SHERPA might even be able to take small payloads as far as Mars.
“The commercialization of space is definitely leading to rapid innovation,” Blake says.
SHERPA is not an acronym. Blake says the craft was named in homage to the Himalayan guides who lug stuff up to the top of the world. In SHERPA’s case, they’re aiming a bit higher.