A lunar flyby mission next year, according to Spaceflight, will serve as a test bed for future potential to support clients flying to both the moon and geostationary orbit. Spaceflight stated on September 14 that it had reached an agreement to fly as the secondary payload on Intuitive Machines’ IM-2 lunar lander mission, which would launch on the SpaceX Falcon 9 in the 4th quarter of 2022.
Sherpa-ES, a new variant of Spaceflight’s Sherpa family of tugs, will be carried on the trip. It will orbit the moon as well as return to the geostationary orbit with a payload for the Orbit Fab, a firm that is creating tankers to assist spacecraft refuelling in orbit. The lunar swingby uses about 25 percent less propellant than a standard orbit-raising maneuver to GEO, and it takes just 15 days for the cargo to reach GEO.
The Sherpa-ES is founded on Sherpa-LTC, a chemical-propelled version of the Sherpa. According to Phil Bracken, who serves as the vice president in charge of the engineering at the Spaceflight, the major change is the larger propellant tanks. “We’re steadily improving the design rather than throwing the LTC concept out the window and starting again.”
Other modifications include communications, where Spaceflight will need to use a separate set of the ground stations to allow conversations at lunar distances. “You need to fly this vehicle such as a rocket stage,” he stated, referring to a midcourse adjustment and modifications in how the spacecraft determines its position.
Orbit Fab is the mission’s only announced customer so far, and it was arranged through GeoJump, a new smallsat ridesharing company. According to Bracken, Spaceflight is in talks with a number of additional possible clients for the mission, notably companies searching for ways to send payloads around the moon with hundreds of kilos of capacity.
He noted that “we’ve seen a constant increase in interest” in lunar missions, which he attributed to government lunar exploration efforts. With the Sherpa-ES project, Spaceflight intends to show that rideshare options should be incorporated in future lunar missions, such as NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which includes the IM-2 mission. “Part of the reason we’re interested in pursuing this trip is that we believe there will be a potential wealth of lunar missions,” he added. “Whether it’s via CLPS from NASA or even some other group of government or private missions, we believe there will be a potential wealth of lunar missions.” “The goal is to show that these things should have rideshare.”
The arrangement with Intuitive Machines only applies to the IM-2 mission, which Bracken described as an “opportunistic” situation to take advantage of extra capacity on that quest. At the same time, Spaceflight considers how to accommodate customers looking to travel to geostationary orbits to the moon. “Non-low Earth orbit smallsat missions have a bright future,” he stated. “We’re going to offer up future orbits for the small satellites and private clients that want to do cool stuff.”