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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.


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Exolaunch signs pact with SpaceX and scouts U.S. location

SAN FRANCISCOExolaunch signed an agreement to secure rides for dozens of small satellites on SpaceX rideshare missions scheduled to launch later this year and in 2021.

Under the agreement announced Oct. 8, Germany’s Exolaunch plans to integrate 30 U.S. and European cubesats and microsatellites on Falcon 9 rideshare flights to sun-synchronous orbit scheduled to launch in December. Exolaunch plans to integrate roughly the same number of satellites on a SpaceX rideshare flight in mid-2021.

In response to growing demand for launch services, Exolaunch plans to open an office in the United States. The company has not yet selected a location.

“As we continue to sign on more U.S.-based customers, it makes sense strategically for Exolaunch to establish an additional office in the U.S,” Connor Jonas, Exolaunch program manager, said in a statement.

Exolaunch is continuing to sign up customers for the second and third Falcon 9 rideshare missions slated for 2021.

“SpaceX program is a game-changer for the rideshare launch industry giving new impetus for numerous constellations of small satellites,” said Jeanne Medvedeva, Exolaunch vice president of launch services. “Teaming up with SpaceX, we are able to offer our customers seamless, reliable and cost-effective launch solutions and expand access to space.”

Customers signed up for launches through Exolaunch include Loft Orbital, Swarm Technologies, NanoAvionics, the German Aerospace Center DLR and German universities.

On the Falcon 9 flights, Exolaunch will integrate satellites with its EXOport adapter and send satellites into orbit with its CarboNIX separation system.

Prior to the latest announcement, Exolaunch secured Falcon 9 rideshare flights in 2020 and 2021 for cubesats built by NanoAvionics of Lithuania.


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Exolaunch and NanoAvionics sign contracts for SpaceX flights

SAN FRANCISCO – German launch services provider Exolaunch announced contracts June 29 to integrate NanoAvionics cubesats on SpaceX’s rideshare missions.

Under the agreements, Exolaunch is procuring the launch, handling integration and deploying in orbit two six-unit cubesats built by NanoAvionics, a Lithuanian nanosatellite manufacturer. The first NanoAvionics cubesat covered by the new contract is scheduled to reach orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 dedicated rideshare mission in December 2020. The second is schedule for a 2021 SpaceX flight.

“We are glad to be collaborating with Exolaunch on these upcoming satellite launches,” Vytenis Buzas, NanoAvionics CEO and co-founder, said in a statement. “The company is an experienced and trusted partner that responds well to our needs. Not only do they provide deployment systems with a solid flight heritage, but their flexibility towards offering the most suitable launch solutions is extremely valuable to our company and customers.”

Exolaunch announced its first contract in April to send customer satellites on the December 2020 Falcon 9 rideshare flight.

“Exolaunch has numerous international customers who already signed up for this mission,” according to the June 29 news release. “Recently the company extended its contract with SpaceX for an additional ESPA port.” (ESPA is a rocket adapter for secondary payloads.)

“We quickly filled the slots procured on SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare launch this year,” Exolaunch Commercial Director Jeanne Medvedeva told SpaceNews. “We’ve now started procuring capacity on Falcon 9 rideshare launches in 2021.”

NanoAvionics, a spinoff of Lithuania’s Vilnius University, has established facilities in Vilnius, the United Kingdom and the United States to satisfy growing demand for small satellites.

NanoAvionics is under contract to build five nanosatellites for Sen, a British company planning to stream high-definition video of Earth. A consortium of Norwegian and Dutch research centers hired NanoAvionics to build two nanosatellites for space-based spectrum monitoring. In addition, Thales Alenia Space selected NanoAvionics to manufacture the first two satellite buses for the Omnispace’s internet-of-things constellation.

Exolaunch plans to conduct mechanical testing prior to launching the NanoAvionics cubesats at its Berlin, Germany, headquarters, before integrating the satellites with SpaceX launch vehicles at Florida’s Cape Canaveral. The NanoAvionics satellites will be integrated on a Falcon 9 ESPA port and deployed in orbit using Exolaunch’s EXOpod cubesat deployer, according to the news release.

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Exolaunch arranges rides for Loft Orbital satellites

SAN FRANCISCO – German launch services provider Exolaunch announced an agreement to launch two Loft Orbital microsatellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare missions.

Under the contract, Exolaunch will handle mission management, deployment and integration services for Loft Orbital, a San Francisco startup planning to establish a constellation of standard microsatellites to fly payloads, sensors and experiments for customers.

Exolaunch announced plans in April to arrange rides for multiple small satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare missions. Loft Orbital is the first customer announced.

Exolaunch is preparing to launch Loft Orbital’s YAM-3 satellite, built by LeoStella, a Seattle-based joint venture of Thales Alenia Space and Spaceflight Industries, on a Falcon 9 flight scheduled for December 2020. YAM-3 includes an internet-of-things payload, an onboard autonomy demonstration, a position and queuing demonstration and blockchain applications.

YAM-3 will deploy from the Falcon 9 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter port with CarboNIX, Exolaunch’s microsatellite separation system.

Exolaunch plans to send another Loft Orbital satellite to space on a 2021 SpaceX flight.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with Exolaunch for YAM-3’s launch,” Pierre-Damien Vaujour, Loft Orbital co-CEO, said in a statement. “We’re looking forward to a long-term partnership with their team.”

Exolaunch Commercial Director Jeanne Medvedeva said in a statement, “Loft Orbital’s unique service of aggregating multiple payloads on their satellites addresses the industry’s acute demand for reduced complexity and costs.”

Loft Orbital planned to launch its first satellite, YAM-2, on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in mid-2020 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created launch delays.

“The overall uncertainty, travel restrictions and shipment delays due to the pandemic mainly affected the rideshare launches scheduled for mid-year,” Medvedeva told SpaceNews. “Thankfully, the production of our separation systems within Germany wasn’t affected. But it was challenging to guarantee timely shipments due to the lack of flights.”

In cases where Exolaunch employees haven’t been able to integrate vehicles at launch sites due to the pandemic, the company has instructed customers to perform the integration virtually, Medvedeva said. “We hope that the situation will improve in the upcoming months to enable smooth preparations for the Falcon 9 launch at the end of the year,” she added.

Blue Canyon Technologies built Loft Orbital’s YAM-2 satellite.

“Remaining satellite bus, payload and launch vehicle agnostic is a core part of Loft Orbital’s value proposition,” Vaujour said.