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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.

SpaceNews

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Watch live: Spacewalkers work to prep space station for future upgrades

STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION

Space station commander Chris Cassidy and Robert Behnken floated back outside Tuesday for their fourth spacewalk in less than a month, this one to complete preparations for future upgrades including the eventual installation of an airlock that will allow commercial experiments to be moved into and out of vacuum as required.

The astronauts originally planned four spacewalks to install replacement batteries in the station’s solar power system, but that work was completed ahead of schedule during three excursions on June 26, July 1 and July 16. The fourth spacewalk was replanned as a result and now includes a variety of unrelated tasks.

Floating in the Quest airlock, Cassidy and Behnken switched their spacesuits to battery power at 7:12 a.m. EDT to officially kick off a planned six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk, the 231st in station history, the seventh so far this year and the 10th for both astronauts.

The first item on the agenda was to install a robotics tool box on a rail-mounted carrier used to move the station’s robot arm from one worksite to another.

After that, Behnken planned to move to the lab’s right-side inboard set of solar arrays to remove a no-longer-needed handling, or “H,” fixtures, one of several that were used to lift and move the stowed arrays before launch. Cassidy planned to detach a second fixture on the far right side of the power truss.

All of them must be removed to make way for future power system upgrades. Behnken attempted to remove the first fixture during the July 16 spacewalk, but he was unable to pull it free. Engineers then developed new procedures and tools, including a 3D-printed wedge, that were expected to help the crew pull off the two fixtures.

Cassidy and Behnken then planned to make their way to the left side of the power truss to prepare the outer hatch of the Tranquility module — the same compartment that features the station’s multi-window cupola — for the later attachment of a commercial airlock.

The Bishop Airlock, designed by Nanoracks as a commercial venture, is scheduled for launch later this year aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. Once in place, the airlock will enable research payloads and equipment to be robotically moved into and out of the space station, exposing them to the space environment as required.

The airlock will be attached to the Tranquility module’s currently unoccupied outboard port. To make way for installation, Cassidy and Behnken planned to remove a thermal cover and protective shields, reposition a variety of cables and clean the common berthing mechanism’s attachment fittings.

Once the airlock preps are complete, Cassidy and Behnken will wrap up the day’s work by routing camera power and data cables and removing a damaged lens filter from an external camera assembly.

Assuming the spacewalk runs the full six-and-a-half hours, Behnken will move up to No. 3 on the list of most-experienced spacewalkers with more than 62 hours of EVA time 10 excursions. Cassidy’s mark will stand at nearly 56 hours, moving him up to eighth on the list.

With the spacewalk complete, the station crew will turn its attention to the launch and docking of a Russian Progress supply ship Thursday. The next major task after that will be preparations for Behnken and Douglas Hurley to return to Earth aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship that carried them into orbit May 30.

The Crew Dragon, developed as a commercial venture, is the first piloted U.S. orbital since the final shuttle flight in 2011. Hurley and Behnken plan to undock from the station’s forward port the evening of Aug. 1 and to splash down in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean off Florida’s east coast on Aug. 2 to close out a 64-day flight.