Space tug

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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[1] or the proposed Russian Parom, and sometimes used to refer to expendable upper stages,[1] such as Fregat,[2] 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[edit]

Parts of the canceled 1969 reusable NASA Space tug

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.[1] 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.[3]

Space Shuttle era[edit]

Expendable upper stages[edit]

The Shuttle program filled the role of high-energy orbital transfer by the development of a solid-fueled single-stage Payload Assist Module and two-stage Inertial Upper Stage.

A more powerful liquid hydrogen fueled Centaur-G stage was developed for use on the Shuttle, but was cancelled as too dangerous after the Challenger disaster.[4]

Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle[edit]

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.[5][6] 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.[7]

Twenty-first century proposals[edit]


The Russian RKK Energia corporation proposed a space tug named Parom in 2005[8] which could be used to ferry both the proposed Kliper crew vehicle or uncrewed cargo and fuel resupply modules to ISS.[9] 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.[10] Sherpa is scheduled to fly in 2017 and will host a secondary payload by DLR.[11]


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.[12]

ISRO PAM-G[edit]

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.[13][14] 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.[15][16][17] PAM-G would form the fourth stage of GSLV Mk2C launch vehicle,[18] 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.[19][20][21]

See also[edit]

Other sources[edit]

  • NASA Report, Technical Study for the Use of the Saturn 5, INT-21 and Other Saturn 5 Derivatives to Determine an Optimum Fourth Stage (space tug). Volume 1: Technical Volume, Book 1.[22]


  1. ^ a b c "Space Tug". Astronautix. Retrieved July 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  2. ^ "Fregat space tug". Retrieved July 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  3. ^ "The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA's Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle". Retrieved July 2014. Because a rising tide lifts all boats, NASA's flight rates during the 1960s had been buoyed powerfully by the agency's generous budgets. The OMB had no intention of granting such largesse during the 1970s.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  4. ^ "Long-forgotten Shuttle/Centaur boosted Cleveland's NASA center into manned space program and controversy". Retrieved July 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  5. ^ "NASA's New Launch Systems May Include the Return of the Space Tug". SpaceRef. August 7, 2005. Retrieved July 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  6. ^ "Linking Space Station & Mars". Wired. December 2013. Retrieved July 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  7. ^ Department of Defense appropriations for 1986, pt. 1, p. 242.
  8. ^ "Parom orbital tug". RussianSpaceWeb. February 9, 2010. Retrieved July 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  9. ^ "Lighter Kliper could make towed trip to ISS". Flight Global. Nov 2005. Retrieved July 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  10. ^ "Spaceflight Unveils SHERPA In-Space Tug". Parabolic Arc. May 7, 2012. Retrieved July 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  11. ^ "DLR Signs Launch Services Agreement with Spaceflight Inc.". Parabolic Arc. July 8, 2014. Retrieved July 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  12. ^ "VASMIR". Ad Astra Rocket Company. Retrieved July 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  13. ^ (PDF) Archived from the original (PDF) on September 3, 2013. Retrieved July 8, 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  14. ^ N. Gopal Raj (2014-10-01). "Upgrading Indian rockets for future Mars missions". Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  15. ^ (PDF) Archived from the original (PDF) on February 25, 2014. Retrieved July 8, 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  16. ^ (PDF) Archived from the original (PDF) on October 13, 2011. Retrieved July 8, 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  17. ^ (PDF) Archived from the original (PDF) on November 23, 2010. Retrieved July 8, 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  18. ^ "GSLV". Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  19. ^ "‘Jupiter’ Space Tug Could Deliver Cargo To The Moon". 12 March 2015. Retrieved 17 March 2015. 
  20. ^ Jeff Foust (13 March 2015). "Lockheed Martin Pitches Reusable Tug for Space Station Resupply". Space News. 
  21. ^ Avery, Greg (2015-03-12). "Lockheed Martin proposes building ISS cargo ship for NASA". Denver Business Journal. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  22. ^ [1]


  • Wade, Mark. "Space Tug". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Retrieved June 15, 2011.