New Space and Tech

SpaceX’s Transporter-8 Launches From California With an Eclectic Mix of Smallsat Missions

By Jon Kelvey
June 12, 2023
Filed under , , ,
SpaceX’s Transporter-8 Launches From California With an Eclectic Mix of Smallsat Missions
Transporter-8 successfully lifting off,
Image credit: SpaceX telecast.

The SpaceX Transporter-8 mission successfully lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California during its afternoon launch window on Monday, June 12. Part of SpaceX’s small satellite (smallsat) rideshare program, Transporter-8 carries dozens of small to pico-sized satellites and orbital test vehicles.

Transporter-8 marks the 38th  Falcon 9 rocket launch of 2023, coming on the heels of another launch early Monday morning carrying the latest load of several dozen Starlink satellites out of Cape Canaveral Space Force Base. The Falcon 9 is fast becoming the major workhorse of the space industry. If SpaceX maintains the pace, and adds successful launches of its super-heavy lift Falcon Heavy rocket, the company may well hit Elon Musk’s target of 100 rocket launches by the end of 2023. 

Transporter-8 was a rideshare launch — that is, a rocket launch without a primary mission designed to lower costs for small spacecraft operators — and its launch manifest includes an eclectic variety of missions. These range from a space manufacturing technology demonstration (Winnebago-1) from Varda Space Industries, to two cryptocurrency technology satellites (CRYPTO3 and MOXY-1), to a communications satellite for the Vatican (SpeiSat).

Within the diverse manifest is the Otter Pup, a microwave oven-sized test spacecraft produced by Seattle, Washington-based Starfish Space. A satellite servicing startup launched three years ago by Blue Origin alumni Austin Link and Trevor Bennet, Starfish plans to develop a larger production spacecraft they call the Otter, which the company expects will be able to perform rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking (RPOD) with satellites in Low Earth and Geosynchronous orbits.

“Our goal with Otter Pup is to prove out and demonstrate on orbit all of the key technologies that we’ve been developing in-house that will make the Otter possible,” Starfish Space Director of LEO Business and Policy, Alex Coultrup, told SpaceRef.

Otter, when it flies, will weigh in at around 250 kilograms, and will use Starfish Space’s proprietary software to autonomously navigate to any client satellites. The spacecraft will then use Starfish’s Nautilus Docking hardware, which uses electrostatic force to adhere to other satellites, allowing Otter to dock with and then maneuver satellites that are not pre-prepared for third-party service.

“Otter Pup is a 40-kilogram spacecraft, but it has all the same hardware, all the same software, all the same processors” as the full-scale Otter, Coultrup said. “And it has a full-sized, full-scale Nautilus on board.”

Like the planned full-size Otter spacecraft, Otter Pup depends entirely on electric propulsion, and will use Hall effect thrusters.

”Hall effect thrusters are very low thrust, but very high delta V that we’re packing into a small form factor with the spacecraft,” Coultrup said.

Otter Pup is integrated with an orbital test vehicle (OTV). The plan is for Otter Pup to detach from the OTV and navigate about several kilometers away, according to Coultrup.

“Then Otter Pup will turn around, come back, and rendezvous with the orbiter on a different surface,” she added. “It doesn’t have preconfigured docking hardware on that surface. And so that will be our docking attempt.”

If all goes well, Starfish Space aims to begin providing commercial service with the full-scale Otter by sometime in 2025, according to Coultrup, offering altitude boosts and end-of-life deorbiting, among other services, to paying clients.

The Transporter-8 mission prepares for launch. Image credit: SpaceX telecast.

While Starfish Space is focused largely on helping satellites stay in space or safely burn up while deorbiting, another Transporter-8 payload is focused on getting payloads back from space in one piece.

Outpost Mission 0 is a small cubesat operated by Los Angeles-based Outpost Technologies Corporation, which is developing a system for returning payloads from orbit to support space manufacturing.

The International Space Station is scheduled to be decommissioned in the next decade and a slew of private Commercial LEO destinations plan to take its place, leasing space and services to both NASA and other private companies. And in speaking with some of those companies, Outpost Space Director of Business Development Paul Tomko realized anyone planning on, say, bioengineering tissues or growing crystals in microgravity are down mass constrained, meaning there’s very little material they can send back to Earth at any given time.

“They’re trying to figure out their business models,” Tomko told SpaceRef. So, “our first main product is going to be a reusable satellite platform that flies on a rideshare to perform whatever mission that our customers require.”

When it comes time to return the customer’s payload to Earth, the reusable spacecraft will deploy an inflatable heat shield — a Hypersonic Inflatable, Aerodynamic Decelerator, (HIAD) — initially developed at NASA Langley. NASA successfully returned a HIAD demonstrator from orbit in November 2022.

“The inflatable heat shield that takes us from roughly Mach 25 down to Mach 0.7 or so,” Tomko said. “The idea is to deploy a drogue chute that will take us down from 0.7 to Mach 0.3, and then use an autonomous paragliding platform that takes us back down to the ground with precision.”

The inflatable shield and the paraglider are key to Outpost’s plan, as they will significantly decrease the spacecraft’s weight, increasing the margin of its total mass that can go towards carrying a payload.

“There’s a lot of that mass that’s tied up in actually just being the heat shield itself; the heat shield material, the tiles,” Tomko said. “All of that is very heavy and you end up only normally having 5 percent — maybe 10 percent — of actual payload mass margin on a typical reentry capsule,” Tomko added. “We’re aiming to have a 50 percent payload margin.”

All of that is for the future, however. Outpost Mission 0 is a test of basic operations, and Tomko explained that the primary goal is to verify that Outpost can handle “uplink and downlink, that we can control the attitude of our spacecraft,” Tomko said. “Really check those boxes of what we need to do for a larger satellite platform.”

But the company currently aims to test a full-scale spacecraft by sometime in 2025.

“We call them ferries, these Earth-return satellites,” Tomko said. “We foresee a future where there’s a fleet of hundreds of ferries that we are in some phase of refurbishment or reflight or being reused over time.”

Jon Kelvey

Jon Kelvey is a science writer covering space, aerospace, and biosciences. His work has appeared in publications such as Air & Space Magazine, Earth and Space News, Slate, and Smithsonian in addition to SpaceRef.