DARPA Satlets To Fly on Sherpa’s Debut Mission

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WASHINGTON — Futuristic space hardware developed under a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort to salvage usable parts from spent satellites is scheduled to make its first flight next year on the debut mission of a commercial secondary payload deployer developed by Spaceflight Inc., the company said.

NovaWurks, which is under a DARPA contract develop so-called satlets — self-contained satellite component pieces that perform specific functions such as propulsion or communications — has tapped Seattle-based Spaceflight to fly the initial versions aboard its Sherpa space tug during the third quarter of 2015, Spaceflight announced Dec. 9. The satlets are a critical part of DARPA’s Phoenix program, which as conceived would demonstrate the ability to salvage and repurpose usable components, such as antennas, from spent satellites.

The mission will be the first for Sherpa, a free-flying secondary payload dispenser equipped with its own power, propulsion and pointing systems, according to Curt Blake, Spaceflight’s president. It is designed to launch as a piggyback payload and, after separating from its carrier rocket, deploy as many as five satellites, each weighing up to 300 kilograms, in their desired orbits.

Curt Blake. Credit: Spaceflight
Curt Blake. Credit: Spaceflight

Blake declined to name the rocket that will launch the tug on its maiden flight except to say that it will be a U.S. commercial mission. Spaceflight, which arranges rides for piggyback payloads on various rockets, has previously said it planned to demonstrate Sherpa on flights of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launcher.

For the upcoming mission, the Sherpa’s ports will host a combination of commercial and government missions, Blake said in an interview.

“DARPA’s Phoenix program is a near perfect fit with Sherpa’s capabilities, which will open up additional access to space on commercial launch vehicles, as well as acting as an enabler for future missions to unique orbits,” Blake said in a prepared statement.

In October 2013, DARPA awarded NovaWurks a $30.8 million contract for the development, delivery and operation of satlets in an initial on-orbit demonstration. Options could add $11.8 million to the contract’s value.

For the first Phoenix demonstration, DARPA originally planned a robotic mission to remove an antenna from an aging spacecraft and affix it to a satlet. But in April, DARPA refocused the Phoenix program and started concentrating on its individual components.

The agency has not released details of the satlet demonstration mission.

Blake said the second scheduled Sherpa mission will take place in 2016.