WASHINGTON — Launch services startup Launcher said its first orbital transfer vehicle failed shortly after deployment on a launch last month, but that it will fly upgraded versions of the vehicle later this year.

In a Feb. 16 statement, Launcher said its Orbiter SN1 vehicle malfunctioned shortly after deployment from a Falcon 9 rocket on the Transporter-6 rideshare mission Jan. 3 when it could not properly orient itself so that its solar cells could generate power.

The vehicle communicated with a ground station on its first scheduled pass after deployment while on battery power. “We also communicated with the vehicle for the duration of expected battery life,” the company said.

However, the Hawthorne, California-based company said the spacecraft could not get into the proper attitude so that its solar cells could generate power, which it blamed on “an orientation control issue caused by a fault in our GPS antenna system.” That, in turn, kept Orbiter from deploying its satellite payloads.

“While achieving many internal mission objectives in the development of our Orbiter spacecraft and collecting critical data from the successful on-orbit operation, unfortunately, we failed to deploy our customer payloads,” the company stated.

Launcher announced development of Orbiter in 2021 to move satellites to their desired orbits after launch. The company designed Orbiter for use on both rideshare launches like SpaceX’s Transporter line of missions as well as on its own small launch vehicle, Launcher Light, that it is developing.

Who had payloads on Orbiter SN1?

The company said in May 2022 it had six customers for Orbiter SN1 that planned to deploy satellites and four others who had hosted payloads that would remain on the vehicle. In a company statement in December, though, it listed only eight total customers for the mission, including four previously announced that would deploy satellites and two with hosted payloads.

Launcher stated it had been in “constant communication” with those customers throughout the efforts to recover Orbiter SN1. “We have committed to accommodations beyond our contractual requirements to our customers on this mission.”

What’s next?

The company says it will make several modifications to future Orbiter vehicles, including an improved GPS subsystem and software changes to prevent a similar problem from occurring again. Launcher is updating its guidance, navigation and control software for Orbiter with a “robust” safe mode feature and incorporating an improved battery with double the capacity. The company will also add a backup spacecraft separation system.

Launcher announced plans to fly two Orbiter vehicles later this year on the SpaceX Transporter-8 and -9 missions, currently scheduled launch in June and October. The company did not disclose what customers it has for those missions.

Last-mile misfortune

Orbiter is one of several transfer vehicles under development by companies to provide “last-mile” delivery services for smallsats, offering some of the flexibility in orbit provided by dedicated launches at prices closer to what is offered on rideshare missions.

Launcher is not the first company to also experience problems with such vehicles. Momentus launched its first Vigoride tug on a Transporter mission in May 2022, but that vehicle experienced problems with communications and a solar array that failed to deploy. The company was able to deploy most, but not all, of the smallsats it carried on board.

Momentus launched its second vehicle, Vigoride-5, on the same Transporter-6 mission that carried Orbiter SN1. Momentus said Feb. 6 that Vigoride-5, which carried one smallsat and one hosted payload, has operated as expected since its launch. The company “is continuing to fully commission the vehicle in preparation for further on-orbit operations,” it stated.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...