Orbital displacement and service providers are preparing for the tug of war in space as they compete for position in an increasingly crowded market. 4,444 newcomers have poured into the space tug industry that has only emerged in recent years, driving their own ideas to provide operators with greater flexibility in satellite deployment and maintenance.
On the one hand, companies like Spaceflight, Exolaunch and Momentus are designing tugs that connect satellites to the ground before being transported into custom orbits after launch. These services allow customers to cut costs by reducing the satellite’s airborne propulsion or eliminating it entirely and accommodating the payload on a tugboat, sometimes called an orbital transfer vehicle (OTV).
At the other extreme, Northrop Grumman and Astroscale provide tugs that dock with launched satellites to change orbit, expand fuel reserves, or safely remove them from orbit.
Only a few space tug companies can provide commercial services. In terms of post-launch services, so far, only the US aerospace defense giant Northrop Grumman has provided services to customers in orbit.
Nevertheless, for the fast-growing market, integration is expected to have begun.
First market
DOrbit of Italy completed what it said was the world’s first commercial last-mile delivery service on October 28, and its InOrbit Now (ION) vehicles left 12 for Planet in two months satellite.
Although regulatory delays have troubled the Silicon Valley startup Momentus’ plans to provide similar services, Seattle-based Spaceflight has deployed 15 spacecraft since the first flight of the SherpaFX space tug in January.
Spaceflight, which provides carpool launch services for satellite operators, plans to launch another SherpaFX in the SpaceX Transporter2 mission scheduled for late June.
The mission will also include its new electric SherpaLTE OTV.
Spaceflight is expected to fly another next-generation OTV called SherpaLTC in a separate SpaceX mission later this year, which will use chemical propulsion.
“Space tugs have the potential to fundamentally change the small satellite market,” said Phil Bracken, vice president of aerospace engineering.
“With on-orbit propulsion capabilities, orbits that were once out of reach due to cost or propulsion capabilities will become a viable option to address the growing market demand for orbital diversification.”
Until recently, most small satellite customers were only trying to test Their technology chooses to deploy on large rockets on a large scale, which is required for most orbits.
However, as the market for small satellites matures, they increasingly seek specific orbits to obtain the best revenue-generating services.
Sometimes, their technology requires “the extreme state of the final track,” which is impossible for carpooling services or even small dedicated launch vehicles, Bracken added.
He said that early tug missions will focus on smaller tilt changes or height adjustments, but as more OTVs demonstrate their capabilities, a wider range of services will emerge. These include in-orbit transmissions from low earth orbit (LEO) to medium and geostationary orbits, lunar orbits and beyond.
This growing market opportunity recently prompted Germany’s Exolaunch, which also manages carpooling, to announce plans to conduct flight tests of its own space tug next year.
Exolaunch plans to carry out a space tug, and one day it will clean up debris after the satellite is deployed. Image source: Exolaunch
Like the Sherpa, Exolaunch’s Reliant tug will first be paired with a ground satellite and then sent into a custom orbit after launch.
In 2023, the company’s goal is to conduct flight tests of the Reliant Pro configuration that can be adjusted with additional adjustments, including the tilt of the satellite orbit.
In the future, Exolaunch hopes that its tug will be able to deal with space debris before leaving orbit after completing its main mission. Alexander Kabanovsky, chief operating officer of
Exolaunch, said that these plans have emerged as the commercial small satellite market matures, showing that they are more than just a series of one-time launches.
“Sending satellites into orbit has become predictable, reliable, and more affordable,” Kabanowski said.
“As a result, the number of satellites planned to enter space has grown exponentially, and individual orbits have become more desirable. With this huge increase, the problems of space debris management, responsible use of space, and end-of-life removal of satellites have also followed. Come.”
DOrbit also outlined plans to one day use its OTV to deal with debris, which currently also provides hosting services. The completion of the payload service after satellite deployment puts the Italian company and Exolaunch in the middle of the space tug market that provides cradle-style services.
New Lifeline
Debris removal and satellite services departments are not as good at helping small satellites and other minor payloads reach their final destinations.
However, Northrop Grumman’s historic on-orbit service achievements on GEO and the demonstration mission to be carried out on Astroscale’s LEO this year are driving the market forward.
Northrop Grumman Mission Extension Vehicle 2 (MEV2) was successfully connected to Intelsat’s 1002 spacecraft on April 12 to extend its service life. This marked the first time a service provider had docked with a commercial satellite served by GEO.
Northrop Grumman and Intelsat made history when MEV2 docked with operational satellites. Image source: Northrop Grumman
A year ago, its predecessor MEV1 was connected to Intelsat’s IS901 satellite to lift the spacecraft out of orbit from the GEO graveyard and return to service. Joe Anderson, vice president of the SpaceLogistics subsidiary of
Northrop Grumman, said that the success of these two missions showed the industry that in-orbit services are now a reality.
“We see the future of on-orbit services, and the possibilities it brings will increase exponentially in the next few years,” Anderson said.
MEV1 and MEV2 will remain coupled for five years, and then transferred to customers who have not yet booked.
At the same time, the company plans to launch more on-orbit service products that will work together in 2024: Robotic Mission Vehicle (MRV) and Mission Expansion Module (MEP).
MRV is designed to perform more advanced on-orbit service tasks, such as

By Peter

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