A space tug is a type of spacecraft used to transfer payloads from low Earth orbit (LEO) to higher-energy orbits such as geostationary transfer, lunar transfer, or escape trajectory. The term is often used to refer to reusable, space-based vehicles, such as NASA's 1970s STS proposal or the proposed Russian Parom, and sometimes used to refer to expendable upper stages, such as Fregat, or Spaceflight Inc.'s Sherpa.
The space tug was first envisioned in the post-World War II era as a support vehicle for a permanent, Earth-orbiting space station. It was used by science fiction writer Murray Leinster as the title of a novel published in 1953 as the sequel to Space Platform, another novel about such a space station.
NASA Space Transportation System
A reusable space tug was studied by NASA in the late 60s and early 70s as part of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS). This consisted of a basic propulsion module, to which a crew module or other payload could be attached. Optional landing legs could be added to land payloads on the surface of the Moon. This, along with all other elements of STS except the Space Shuttle, was never funded after cutbacks to NASA's budget during the 1970s in the wake of the Apollo program.
Space Shuttle era
Expendable upper stages
Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle
NASA studied another space tug design, termed the Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle (OMV), along with its plans for Space Station Freedom. The OMV's role would have been a reusable space vehicle that would retrieve satellites, such as Hubble, and bring them to Freedom for repair or retrieval, or to service uncrewed orbital platforms. In 1984, the Orbital Manuevering Vehicle (OMV) preliminary design studies were initiated through a competitive award process with systems studies conducted by TRW, Martin Marietta Aerospace, and LTV Corporation.
Twenty-first century proposals
The Russian RKK Energia corporation proposed a space tug named Parom in 2005 which could be used to ferry both the proposed Kliper crew vehicle or uncrewed cargo and fuel resupply modules to ISS. Keeping the tug in space would have allowed for a less massive Kliper, enabling launch on a smaller booster than the original Kliper design.
Spaceflight Inc. has proposed an orbital tug for SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle named Sherpa that would be capable of ferrying small and secondary payloads to orbits other than that of the primary payload. Sherpa is scheduled to fly in 2017 and will host a secondary payload by DLR.
The VASIMR electric plasma rocket could be used as a high-efficiency space tug, using only 9 tons of Argon propellant to make a round trip to the moon, delivering 34 tons of cargo from Low Earth Orbit to low lunar orbit. The Ad Astra Rocket Company is working to utilize the technology to make a space tug.
Indian Space Research Organisation has built an upper stage called PAM-G (Payload Assist Module for GSLV) capable of pushing payloads directly to MEO or GEO orbits from low Earth orbits. PAM-G is powered by hypergolic liquid motor with restart capability, derived from PSLV's fourth stage. As of 2013, ISRO has realized the structure, control systems, and motors of PAM-G and has conducted hot tests. PAM-G would form the fourth stage of GSLV Mk2C launch vehicle, sitting on top of GSLV's cryogenic third stage.
Lockheed Martin has proposed the Jupiter space tug, to be derived from designs of two earlier Lockheed Martin spacecraft—Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission and the Juno—as well as a robotic arm from MDA derived from technology used on Canadarm, the robotic arm technology previously used on the Space Shuttle. In addition to the Jupiter space tug itself, the Lockheed concept includes the use of a new 4.4 m (14 ft)-diameter cargo transport module called Exoliner for carrying cargo to the ISS. Exoliner is based on the earlier ESA-developed Automated Transfer Vehicle, and is to be jointly developed with Thales Alenia Space.
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- Service module
- Multistage rocket
- Apogee kick motor
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