Sherpa-AC Update from Orbit

You may remember that we successfully launched our first Sherpa-AC orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) in late May onboard SpaceX’s Transporter 5. 

Spaceflight’s Sherpa-AC flew for the first time on Transporter 5 in May 2022.

Typically our missions are complete shortly after launch, deployment and successful contact, but our Sherpa-AC1 mission is just getting started!

As a refresher, Sherpa-AC, named for its “Attitude Control” capabilities, augments our base free-flying Sherpa with key functionality including a flight computer, attitude knowledge and control, and more. For customers looking to demonstrate new technologies quickly, Sherpa-AC provides a platform to do so. It brings all the aspects of a bus, allowing hosted payload customers to focus on their payload, while the Sherpa vehicle handles everything else.

Before the launch, our Spaceflight on-orbit operations team worked with our customers and suppliers through requirements definition, verification testing and analysis, and integration for our first Sherpa-AC hosted payload mission. This demo mission involved many “firsts” – our first dedicated hosted payload mission, the inaugural flight of a new Sherpa vehicle, new types of licensing, new customer requirements and more. 

While it’s always exciting to check off those “first” boxes, it’s extremely valuable to identify how the operational processes and practices can be more streamlined and standardized in order to gain efficiencies on future missions. For instance, we completed integration of the ground station communication with the Sherpa host and identified the need for pass schedule automation to improve cost efficiency.  We plan to make this process more streamlined in the future. These learnings are a critical factor in the success of a rapid manufacturing and launch cadence.  

Spaceflight’s ground station map for Sherpa-AC1 passes.

What’s the latest?

While we made initial contact with Sherpa-AC hours after deployment, the last few months have focused on the various aspects of the commissioning process, including powering on systems while monitoring and maneuvering for thermal management, running payload-specific procedures, and conducting many other tests to ensure the health of the vehicle. We are reinforcing these processes as we transition to AS9100 to establish consistent, structured, and reliable processes for integrating and bringing new technologies online.

The Spaceflight operations team also led daily pass planning, including determining what passes to take over which ground stations, lining up functional support accordingly, leading testing efforts on the ground, and capturing and analyzing data. 

We’re certainly not done but it’s helpful to step back and see everything that’s been worked through to integrate many different hardware and software technologies in new ways to deliver unique capabilities. We’re grateful to have a nimble, dedicated team to work through challenges that arise, and are especially appreciative of the strong partnerships we share with our customers and vendor suppliers to pave the way for early operations on these first-of-a-kind missions.

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