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Atmosphere-monitoring satellites will ride on Spaceflight’s new breed of space tug

Alan Boyle
·3 min read
LLITED satellite
An artist’s conception shows one of NASA’s LLITED satellites in orbit. (Illustration by The Aerospace Corp.)

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’s won a contract to handle the launch logistics for a pair of NASA satellites that will study the factors behind atmospheric drag.

The twin CubeSats for a mission known as Low-Latitude Ionosphere / Thermosphere Enhancements in Density, or LLITED, are to be lofted into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket around the end of this year. That launch that will mark the first use of Spaceflight’s Sherpa-LTC orbital transfer vehicle, also known as an OTV or space tug.

In January, a different type of Spaceflight space tug, the Sherpa-FX, successfully deployed more than a dozen spacecraft after a Falcon 9 launch. The Sherpa-LTC represents a step above the FX because it has its own in-orbit propulsion system.

The chemical-based thruster system, built for Spaceflight by Benchmark Space Systems, makes it possible for the Sherpa-LTC to shift between different orbital locations. Spaceflight’s mission plan calls for an initial round of satellite deployments, followed by a maneuver that will set the Sherpa up for deploying the LLITED satellites in a different orbit.

“Spaceflight’s full-service offering with our portfolio of Sherpa OTV vehicles greatly increases the scientific opportunities for NASA, universities, and other organizations that require deployments to non-traditional orbital destinations,” Valerie Skarupa, director of government business development for Spaceflight Inc., said in a news release.

Yet another type of OTV, the Sherpa-LTE, will soon make its debut with an electric propulsion system.

Each of the LLITED satellites measures 4 by 4 by 6 inches, not including their solar arrays. The mission team includes scientists and engineers from The Aerospace Corp., Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of New Hampshire.

LLITED will investigate the equatorial temperature and wind anomaly that occurs in the neutral atmosphere, at altitudes ranging from 185 to 310 miles (300 to 500 kilometers), as well as the equatorial ionization anomaly that occurs in the region containing electrically charged particles.

“Aerospace’s innovative CubeSat mission will measure these two features simultaneously, a major new milestone for on-orbit satellite capability,” said Aerospace Corp.’s Rebecca Bishop, principal investigator for LLITED.

“By observing this altitude region more closely, scientists will gain a greater understanding of the degree of change in atmosphere density, which in turn affects the amount of drag satellites encounter, as well as re-entry rates,” Bishop said. “Because drag is dependent on atmosphere density, understanding regional changes in density can help predict an object’s re-entry time and path.”

Spaceflight Inc., which is marking the 10th anniversary of its founding this year, has been involved in the launch of nearly 350 satellites across 37 missions on eight different types of launch vehicles. The company plans to handle logistics for about 10 launches this year.

One such launch took place today. Rocket Lab sent seven satellites into low Earth orbit from its New Zealand launch site aboard an Electron rocket — and one of those satellites is BlackSky 7, the seventh Earth observation satellite in the BlackSky Global constellation.

Spaceflight Inc. handled mission management and integrations services for the BlackSky satellite, and that’s not the only Seattle-area connection: BlackSky (which was once Spaceflight’s sister subsidiary) has offices in Seattle, and the satellite was built at LeoStella’s factory in Tukwila, Wash.

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