Here Come the Space Tugs, Ready to Tidy Up Earth's Orbits

WIRED | 8/22/2019 | Sarah Scoles
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Debris was top of mind for Spaceflight Industries, a company that arranges rocket rides for lots of satellite operators. Back in December 2018, they set up the SmallSat Express, which carried more than 60 little satellites to orbit on a SpaceX rocket. To release them all to the right place at the right time without causing a giant pile-up, the company built two deployment devices.

They were called “free flyers,” and they were based on the schematics of its own space tug, called Sherpa, but minus the propulsion. The satellites traveled up in the flyers, which detached from the rocket once they got to orbit. In a carefully orchestrated sequence, the free flyers set the satellites loose. “All of our customers were fine with the orbit we were going to,” says Jeff Roberts, Spaceflight’s mission director, so they could get away without using propulsion. When the show was over, big sails deployed from the free flyers and dragged them out of orbit so they didn't add to the junk.

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From that launch and other rideshare work, Spaceflight has learned a few things: They probably won't do another launch with as many satellites as the SmallSat Express. It was a lot of logistics. And according The Verge, people had trouble tracking their satellites and communicating with them, a worry Wired reported on at the time of launch. Roberts says the company will probably now stick to missions involving “no more than 20 to 30 satellites at a time.”

Also: Roberts isn’t sure how badly smallsat operators need a space tug. “A lot of...
(Excerpt) Read more at: WIRED
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