Arianespace partners with Australian space tug startup

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TAMPA, Fla. — Arianespace is exploring the compatibility of its rockets with orbital transfer vehicles (OTVs) being developed by Space Machines Company, an Australian startup.

The companies signed a deal Oct. 30 that lays the groundwork for their cooperation, which could later see them jointly offering services to customers seeking post-launch in-space logistics.

Optimus-1, SMC’s first 270-kilogram space tug, is slated to make its debut in the second quarter of 2023 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission to low Earth orbit (LEO).

After separating from the rocket, Optimus-1 is due to carry Australian customer payloads to their final orbital destinations as it gains flight qualification.

SMC has not released technical details for Optimus-1, which was originally due to launch in 2022 on a small launch vehicle being developed by Gilmour Space, another Australian startup.

Gilmour said Oct. 10 the first commercial launch of its Eris rocket is slated for the first half of 2023.

SMC is also developing OTVs for payload transportation missions beyond LEO and into deep space and for in-orbit services, including refueling.

The startup aims to make its Optimus family of space tugs compatible “with as many launchers as possible worldwide.” 

These include Arianespace’s medium-lift rocket Vega C which performed its maiden flight in July and its larger Ariane 6 launch vehicle, which recently saw its debut delayed to at least late 2023.

Stéphane Israël, Arianespace’s CEO, said the company is looking for other space tug providers to support “the last-mile-to-orbit delivery” of payloads.

In 2020, Arianespace deployed the first ION Satellite Carrier space tug for Italy’s D-Orbit with an earlier iteration of Vega C.

In August, the French launch services provider announced plans to deploy Spaceflight’s Sherpa OTVs from Vega rockets.

Spaceflight said it could launch its first OTV on a Vega around the end of 2023 or early 2024.

The U.S.-based company has deployed five Sherpa OTVs to date across four SpaceX missions. 

The OTV partnership with Arianespace came about five months after SpaceX signaled plans to phase out its working relationship with Spaceflight.

OTV applications, including last-mile deliveries and hosted payloads, will “generate $100s of millions in revenue during the next decade,” according to a recent report from analysts at BryceTech.

Emerging OTV applications also include in-orbit inspections and debris removal services.