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.


aerospace Argentina astronomy Capella Space Commercial Space Complex 40 CONAE Coronavirus Earth observation falcon 9 GNOMES INVAP Mission Reports News PlanetiQ Radio occultation rideshare SAOCOM SAOCOM 1B spacex Whitney Whitney 1 X Home Page Highlight

Argentine team returns to Florida to prep radar satellite for late July launch

Team members pose with the SAOCOM 1B radar imaging satellite before it was shipped from Argentina to Cape Canaveral earlier this year. Credit: CONAE

A team of 18 Argentine engineers is quarantining in Florida this week after arriving from Buenos Aires, observing coronavirus health restrictions before beginning operations at Cape Canaveral next week to ready Argentina’s second radar Earth observation satellite for liftoff as soon as July 25 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Officials suspended preparations for the launch of Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B radar imaging satellite in March due to concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. The mission was previously scheduled for launch March 30.

Mission managers and engineers from CONAE — Argentina’s National Commission for Space Activities — and SAOCOM 1B satellite manufacturer INVAP arrived in Miami on Saturday aboard a commercial flight from Buenos Aires. The team members were expected to quarantine in a hotel for eight days and drive to Cape Canaveral to resume preparations for launch of the SAOCOM 1B spacecraft.

The SAOCOM 1B satellite was flown in a transport plane from Argentina to Cape Canaveral in February. After officials announced the launch delay in March, engineers placed the spacecraft in storage at a SpaceX facility in Florida to await the resumption of launch preparations.

CONAE, which manages the SAOCOM 1B mission, cited “restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic” on the launch and on operations of the satellite as the reason for the launch delay.

Engineers prepare to depart Argentina en route to Florida to resume SAOCOM 1B launch preparations. Credit: CONAE

The SAOCOM 1B engineers who traveled to Florida tested negative for the COVID-19 virus before departing Argentina. They will be tested for the virus again before they are permitted to enter SpaceX facilities at Cape Canaveral, according to CONAE.

The engineers will begin tasks Monday, July 13, to ready the 6,600-pound (3,000-kilogram) SAOCOM 1B spacecraft for launch. The team will verify the health of the satellite after coming out of three months in storage, then encapsulate the spacecraft inside the payload fairing of its Falcon 9 launcher.

Argentine officials said the launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is scheduled between July 25 and July 30. The launch time each day is set for approximately 7:19 p.m. EDT (2319 GMT).

The launch of SAOCOM 1B in late July is currently third in line on SpaceX’s busy launch manifest.

SpaceX is preparing for launch of a Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center — a few miles north of pad 40. Another Falcon 9 is scheduled for liftoff July 14 from pad 40 with South Korea’s Anasis 2 military communications satellite.

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

Engineers in Argentina will participate in the launch campaign remotely, assisting in virtual readiness reviews before ground controllers take command of the SAOCOM 1B satellite after launch.

SAOCOM 1B is the second of two identical radar observation satellites developed by CONAE, following the SAOCOM 1A satellite launched in October 2018 on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The satellite’s purpose is to scan the Earth with an L-band steerable synthetic aperture radar, enabling all-weather imagery of the planet day and night. Radar imagers can see through clouds and are effective 24 hours a day, but optical cameras are hindered by clouds and darkness.

When it launches with SAOCOM 1B, the Falcon 9 rocket head south from Cape Canaveral to deploy the spacecraft into a polar orbit 385 miles (620 kilometers) above Earth. The flight will be the first rocket launch from Florida’s Space Coast since 1960 to target a polar orbit.

SAOCOM 1B was originally supposed to launch from Vandenberg on the West Coast, the primary U.S. launch base for polar orbit missions. SpaceX moved the launch to Cape Canaveral because the company’s launch schedule at Vandenberg is relatively quiet this year, with no Falcon 9 launches planned from there until November.

The move allowed SpaceX to temporarily reduce its staff at Vandenberg, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said last year.

A 220-pound (100-kilogram) commercial radar imaging satellite owned by Capella Space, a San Francisco-based company, will accompany SAOCOM 1B into orbit on top of the Falcon 9 rocket. It will be the second satellite launched for Capella, which is developing a fleet of small spacecraft it says can be tasked in real-time by customers and collect imagery day and night with a resolution of about 1.6 feet (50 centimeters).

A radio occultation microsatellite for PlanetiQ is also booked to launch with SAOCOM 1B and Capella’s radar satellite.

The GNOMES microsatellite is the first of a planned fleet of around 20 small spacecraft being developed by PlanetiQ to collect radio occultation data by measuring the effects of the atmosphere on signals broadcast by GPS, Glonass, Galileo and Beidou navigation satellites. The information can yield data on atmospheric conditions useful in weather forecasts.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.