aerospace Astrocast astronomy Leaf Space spacex

Leaf Space expands ground station network ahead of busy SpaceX ride-share mission

Leaf Space network

TAMPA, Fla. — Leaf Space has added three more ground stations to its managed network service, helping the Italian company support its largest number of satellite customers on a single launch June 25.

Adding sites in Sri Lanka, the Azores and Scotland increases Leaf Space’s total ground station count to 12, which will support 14 satellites from six customers due to launch on SpaceX’s Transporter-2 ride-share mission.

Giovanni Pandolfi, Leaf Space’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said the company is on track to activate three more ground stations in the third quarter of this year amid the small satellite industry’s rapid expansion.

The company provides ground segment services for satellite and rocket launches, early spacecraft operations, ongoing mission needs and space asset decommissioning.

“Expanding our ground station network provides our customers with more coverage points, allowing more frequent and strategic communications with satellites on orbit providing them with more control, flexibility and the ability to scale quickly without additional operational or infrastructure costs,” Pandolfi told SpaceNews.

Having more ground stations is particularly useful during the launch and early operations phase of a ride-share mission, he added, because it reduces “the time between launch, satellite identification and commissioning, which ultimately allows customers to start using their spacecraft faster.”

The new ground station in Sri Lanka also gives Leaf Space capabilities in the equatorial orbit for the first time, distributing its medium-latitude network to mitigate the risk of interference, among other advantages that provide customers more capacity with fewer antennas. 

Pandolfi said the new station on the remote Shetland Islands in Northern Scotland boosts capacity for sun-synchronous and mid-inclination orbits. 

“It is also a very RF-clean environment, which of course is favorable for satellite operations,” he said.

Founded in 2014, Leaf Space announced plans March 24 for a U.S. office to serve government and commercial markets.

Its customers include Swiss startup Astrocast, which has five satellites on the Transporter-2 mission and recently unveiled plans to go public to expand the constellation.


aerospace Astrocast astronomy Capella Space D-Orbit Exolaunch falcon 9 Hawkeye 360 Iceye Kepler Communications NanoRacks Planet rideshare Spaceflight Inc. spacex Spire Swarm Technologies

SpaceX launches record-setting cluster of smallsats

Transporter-1 launch

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched 143 small satellites for a wide range of customers Jan. 24 on the company’s first dedicated rideshare mission, a service that poses a competitive threat to emerging small launch vehicles.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 10 a.m. Eastern, a launch delayed one day by poor weather. The first stage, making its fifth launch after being previously used for NASA and commercial launches, landed on a droneship off the northern coast of Cuba.

The rocket’s second stage started deploying satellites 59 minutes after liftoff into sun-synchronous orbits, a process that took more than a half-hour to complete. The 143 satellites on what SpaceX called the Transporter-1 mission were the most deployed on a single launch, breaking the record of 104 set by an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) mission in February 2017.

Transporter-1 is the first dedicated rideshare mission for SpaceX’s overall smallsat rideshare program, which also provides secondary payload opportunities on Starlink and other launches. SpaceX worked directly with satellite operators as well as several rideshare aggregators, including D-Orbit, Exolaunch, Nanoracks and Spaceflight, to fly payloads on the mission. The large number of satellites posed a challenge for U.S. Space Command, which tracks satellites and other objects in orbit.

Planet is the largest single customer in terms of number of satellites launched, with 48 of its Dove cubesats. Of those, 36 were contracted directly with SpaceX with the other 12 through other companies. Swarm launched 36 of its SpaceBee satellites by working with two different payload aggregators.

The diversity of payloads meant that some competitors shared a launch. Iceye launched three of its synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites on this mission, alongside two SAR satellites from Capella Space and one from Japanese SAR company iQPS. Astrocast launched five satellites to provide internet-of-things services similar to what Swarm is offering, while Kepler launched eight satellites for its constellation that provides internet-of-things and other communications services.

Some other customers of the launch were Spire, which launched eight new cubesats for weather and vessel tracking services; HawkEye 360, which launched three satellites for its commercial signals intelligence service; and NASA, which launched four technology demonstration cubesats. Neither SpaceX nor the aggregators released full manifests of the satellites on the Transporter-1 mission prior to liftoff.

SpaceX also added 10 of its Starlink satellites to the mission. These will be the first to operate in polar orbits, after the Federal Communications Commission granted permission Jan. 8 to use polar orbits for those 10 satellites to test providing broadband internet access at high latitudes.

Transporter-1 could have had even more payloads. Two DARPA satellites that were to fly on the mission to test technologies for its Blackjack program were damaged during payload processing in early January. Momentus delayed plans to launch its first Vigoride tug, carrying several cubesats, to a future SpaceX rideshare mission, citing delays in getting regulatory approvals.

SpaceX announced its rideshare program in August 2019, offering low-cost launch opportunities for smallsats with a mix of dedicated missions and secondary payloads on rideshare missions. It started allowing customers to book launches directly through its website in February 2020.

SpaceX seeks to provide a regular cadence of launches through that program, intended to provide “competitive pricing and increased flight opportunities on board the world’s most advanced and proven launch vehicles,” Andy Tran, host of the SpaceX webcast, said. “If you’re ready to fly during the scheduled launch period, you will fly.”

That rideshare program could pose a threat to small launch vehicles now in service or about to enter service, which can’t provide the same pricing. Those companies have increasingly emphasized responsiveness, including their ability to place payloads into the customer’s preferred orbit and on their preferred schedule.