Spaceflight and Tethers Unlimited team up on deorbiting system for satellite carrier

An artist’s conception shows Spaceflight’s Sherpa-FX, the first orbital transfer vehicle to debut in the company’s Sherpa-NG (next generation) program. The vehicle is capable of executing multiple deployments, as well as providing independent and detailed deployment telemetry. (Spaceflight Inc. Illustration)

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’ll use a notebook-sized deorbiting system developed by another Seattle-area company to deal with the disposal of its Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle.

The NanoSat Terminator Tape Deorbit System, built by Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited, is designed to take advantage of orbital drag on a 230-foot-long strip of conductive tape to hasten the fiery descent of a spacecraft through Earth’s atmosphere. The system has been tested successfully on nanosatellites over the past year, and another experiment is planned for later this year.

Tethers Unlimited’s system provides an affordable path to reducing space debris, which is becoming a problem of greater concern as more small satellites go into orbit. Statistical models suggest that there are nearly a million bits of debris bigger than half an inch (1 centimeter) whizzing in Earth orbit.

“When Tethers was founded in 1994, its main focus was to solve the problem of space debris so that NASA, the DoD [Department of Defense] and commercial space enterprises could continue to safely operate in Earth orbit,” Tethers Unlimited CEO Rob Hoyt said today in a news release. “We are pleased to see our solutions are now making a significant contribution to ensuring sustainability of the space environment, which will benefit the entire industry.”

Terminator Tape system
Tethers Unlimited’s NanoSat Terminator Tape Deorbit System, shown here with a quarter for comparison, is about the size of a notebook. (Tethers Unlimited Photo)

Spaceflight Inc.’s Sherpa-FX is due to have its first in-space use during a dedicated rideshare mission scheduled for no earlier than December. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket would send the vehicle into orbit, loaded up with smaller spacecraft. After Sherpa-FX separates from the rocket’s upper stage, it would deploy those spacecraft to independent orbits. The system builds on the legacy of Spaceflight Inc.’s first free-flying satellite deployer, which was used for a 64-satellite mission in 2018.

“In-space transportation is essential to meeting our customer’s specific needs to get their spacecraft delivered to orbit exactly when and where they want it,” Grant Bonin, Spaceflight Inc.’s senior vice president of business development, said in a news release. “If you think of typical rideshare as sharing a seat on a train headed to a popular destination, our next-generation Sherpa program enables us to provide a more complete ‘door-to-door transportation service.’”

Spaceflight Inc.’s customers for the rideshare mission include iQPS, Loft Orbital, HawkEye 360, Astrocast and NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program.

The Terminator Tape module, which weighs less than 2 pounds, will be attached to Sherpa-FX’s exterior. When the transfer vehicle has completed its mission, an electrical signal will activate the system to wind out the conductive tape. Interactions with Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere will increase drag, causing a quicker plunge from orbit.

“We’re focused on being a good steward of our space resource, and our mission is to conduct frequent small satellite launches, so we have a responsibility for deorbiting what we send up,” said Philip Bracken, vice president of engineering at Spaceflight Inc. “Tethers’ solution is affordable, compact and lightweight, and will help us fulfill our responsibilities to clean up space after our mission is complete.”

Spaceflight Inc. handles satellite launch logistics in partnership with a variety of launch providers, including SpaceX and Rocket Lab. It was founded as a subsidiary of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, but this year ownership was transferred to Mitsui & Co. Ltd. 

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