Private space company loses space tug launched by SpaceX Falcon 9

The Orbiter SN-3 spacecraft spun out of control shortly after deployment, making it two failed missions for space company Launcher.
Chris Young
SN-3 during the separation procedure.
SN-3 during the separation procedure.


Space startup Launcher lost a vehicle for the second time after it was successfully lifted to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The Orbiter SN3 space tug was designed to carry smaller satellites to their intended orbit after separation from the launch vehicle — in this case, Falcon 9.

Orbiter SN3 launched aboard SpaceX's Transporter-8 rideshare mission on June 12, though it fell into an uncontrollable rotation soon after its separation. The loss of the space tug also resulted in the loss of the mission's primary payload, Launcher explained in a press statement.

The loss of Orbiter SN3

Orbiter SN3 telemetry data indicated shortly after deployment that the vehicle went into an uncontrollable spin shortly after it detached from Falcon 9.

Launcher was able to initiate communication with the Orbiter spacecraft, but the rapid rotation prevented it from deploying its solar arrays.

The spacecraft was carrying the payloads of three customers to specific orbits, forcing Launcher to make a quick call shortly after deployment. Instead of waiting, the company decided to deploy their customer payloads early, instead of risking a complete loss of all payloads further down the line.

Without the ability to draw power from its solar panels, the Launcher team shut down non-critical systems aboard Orbiter SN3 in a bid to preserve the spacecraft's battery. "Unfortunately [though], the state of charge of the spacecraft slowly decreased and contact with Orbiter SN3 was eventually lost," Launcher explained in its statement.

SN3's primary payload was developed by Starship Space, a company designing satellite servicing technologies. Their payload, Otter Pup, would have served as a docking technology demonstrator, but it was unfortunately lost during the mission.

"While achieving many mission objectives and improvements from our first Orbiter mission, unfortunately, we will not be able to serve as a docking target for Starfish Space's Otter Pup. We would like to sincerely apologize to our customers and their teams, partners and end customers for this mission degradation," Launcher wrote in its statement. 

Launcher prepares for SN5

The cause of the issue that saw SN3 spiral, and also transfer a significant amount of rotation to its primary payload before its deployment, seems to have been software related.

"We have begun the implementation of corrective action to ensure this anomaly does not occur again on future missions and that the vehicle is more robust to this type of error," Launcher explained.

Though it's named SN3, Launcher's latest was the second time it launched a spacecraft into orbit. Unfortunately, it also makes two out of two missions failed, as the startup also lost its first spacecraft, SN1, in February 2023.

Launcher does mean to launch its next spacecraft, SN5, aboard SpaceX's Transporter-10 rideshare mission in February 2024. The company said it will continue to be transparent about any issues regarding its Orbiter spacecraft and it is "grateful that our current partners and customers are continuing to join us on our next flight with Orbiter SN5."

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