Deployment of the payload of 88 satellites started nearly 58 minutes after liftoff, once the upper stage performed a second burn of its engine to place it into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of nearly 550 kilometers. The satellites, from a variety of government and commercial customers, were released over half an hour.
The mission, named Transporter-2 by SpaceX, was the company’s second dedicated smallsat rideshare mission, after the Transporter-1 mission in January. The earlier flight carried 143 satellites, but SpaceX said the total payload mass for Transporter-2 was greater than that of Transporter-1. The company did not disclose specific payload mass figures for either mission.
SpaceX established its smallsat rideshare program nearly two years ago, offering low-cost launches on dedicated Falcon 9 missions like Transporter-2 as well as on launches of its Starlink satellites. It has attracted significant interest from both companies and government agencies.
The Transporter-2 payload manifest featured synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites from three competing companies: Capella, Iceye and Umbra. HawkEye 360 and Kleos, two companies deploying constellations to perform radio-frequency tracking, each had satellites on this mission, as did PlanetIQ and Spire, which collect GPS radio occultation data for use in weather forecasting.
Other commercial customers included Astrocast, which is developing an internet-of-things constellation, and Satellogic, which has a multi-launch agreement with SpaceX for launching its imaging satellites. SpaceX flew three of its own Starlink satellites on the launch, which will join 10 Starlink satellites launched into polar orbit on Transporter-1.
The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency (SDA) had four satellites on Transporter-2. Two Mandrake-2 satellites — originally intended to launch on Transporter-1 before being damaged in prelaunch processing — feature optical crosslinks and will be used to test technologies for future low Earth orbit military satellite. Two cubesats built by General Atomics will also test optical communications between satellites and with drones. SDA has a fifth payload on Loft Orbital’s YAM-3 satellite.
NASA flew two smallsats on Transporter-2, including a pathfinder for a cubesat constellation called TROPICS, for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats. TROPICS Pathfinder is identical to the six TROPICS satellites that Astra will launch on its Rocket 3 small launch vehicle in 2022 and will enable full testing of the satellite design in advance of the deployment of the constellation.
Launch cadence and reusability
Transporter-2 was SpaceX’s 20th Falcon 9 mission of the year, with six months yet to go. In only two years has SpaceX conducted more orbital launches: 21 in 2018 and 26 in 2020. The company is on track to shatter the record set last year, even with an anticipated slowdown of launches in July and August.
A key factor in that high launch cadence is reusability. The Falcon 9 booster used for Transporter-2 was making its eighth flight, concluding with a landing at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1. Its first launch was exactly one year ago, when it launched a GPS 3 satellite, and was also used for launching Turksat 5A and five Starlink missions before Transporter-2. Other Falcon 9 boosters have flown up to 10 times.
While SpaceX previously set a goal of 10 flights per booster, company officials have in recent months suggested those boosters could fly more than 10 times. “We’ve got boosters now that have flown 10 times, and some that are slated to fly 20 or possibly 30 times,” Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said in a June 29 appearance at the Mobile World Congress.
“With Falcon 9, we’ve achieved I think the most efficient reusability of any rocket to date,” he said, but added that SpaceX will take reusability “to another level” with its Starship vehicle. That vehicle, whose first orbital launch Musk now says will take place in the “next few months,” is intended to be reflown without any significant refurbishment, like an airliner.
“The Holy Grail for rocketry is rapidly reusable reliable rockets,” he said.
WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched another group of Starlink satellites May 15 on a mission that included two rideshare payloads.
The Falcon 9 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 6:56 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s first stage, making its eighth launch dating back to the Demo-2 commercial mission nearly a year ago, landed on a droneship in the Atlantic.
The rocket’s primary payload, 52 Starlink satellites, separated from the rocket’s upper stage 1 hour and 38 minutes after liftoff. The launch brings the total number of Starlink satellites in orbit to more than 1,600. This was the fourth Falcon 9 launch of Starlink satellites in 17 days, and the ninth Falcon 9 launch of Starlink satellites since the beginning of March.
This launch did not carry the usual complement of 60 Starlink satellites as SpaceX included two rideshare payloads on the rocket that were released from the upper stage about an hour after liftoff. One was the latest in a series of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites for Capella Space. The company launched two other SAR satellites on Transporter-1, a SpaceX Falcon 9 dedicated rideshare mission in January.
The other was Tyvak-0130, a satellite built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. Neither Tyvak nor SpaceX disclosed details about the satellite, including basic information such as its size and mission. A September 2019 document by NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office described Tyvak-0130 as “an optical spectrum astronomy observation satellite” but did not disclose technical details or if the satellite was built for another customer.
Kate Tice, the host of the SpaceX webcast, said that the company “offers multiple launch opportunities each month for small satellites to ride to space on existing low Earth orbit missions.” However, this is only the second mission of the year to carry rideshare payloads, after Transporter-1 launch in January. Several Falcon 9 launches of Starlink satellites last year carried rideshare payloads for BlackSky and Planet.
SpaceX used the launch webcast to note its May 13 partnership with Google, where SpaceX will collocate ground terminals with Google Cloud data centers. The companies said they would provide new services based on this partnership later this year.
SpaceX also announced it had started beta testing Starlink in parts of the Netherlands. The company has been gradually expanding the beta test program, recently adding Austria and France.
“Customer demand has been extremely strong. Demand is growing, so we’re certainly going to have some very full rockets coming up,” said Jarrod McLachlan, senior manager of rideshare sales at SpaceX.
He declined to speculate if those future rideshare missions might exceed the 143 satellites on Transporter-1, since it depends on the mix of customers and their payloads. He noted the company is seeing a trend to “slightly larger microsats” that might reduce the total number of satellites on those upcoming launches compared to Transporter-1.
Some customers, McLachlan said, are designing their spacecraft specifically to use those rideshare launches based on the size, mass and other interface requirements SpaceX publishes for those launches.
“We’re seeing some people who are optimizing their spacecraft and their constellation design around that volume, as well as some of the integrator/broker partners out there who are doing multiple spacecraft in a single port,” he said. “Being so public with our pricing and our requirements is really enabling people to be creative.”
The upcoming dedicated rideshare missions, like Transporter-1, will go to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). That’s driven by customer demand for that class of orbits, McLachlan said. SpaceX also offers rideshare services to mid-inclination orbits by flying satellites as secondary payloads on Starlink launches. “If we see demand from something outside of SSO or mid-inclined orbits,” he said, “we’ll certainly take a look at that.”
While rideshare launches of smallsats on larger launch vehicles are not new, the scale of SpaceX’s effort, and its prices, have attracted widespread interest. That program is also seen as a major competitor for the growing number of small launch vehicle developers that can’t match the per-kilogram price SpaceX quotes for its rideshare customers.
Those companies are instead focusing on their ability to meet specific customer requirements not possible on rideshare missions, such as schedule and orbit. “To do that, you need different types of mission solutions, and that’s where Virgin Orbit comes in,” said Stephen Eisele, vice president at Virgin Orbit, on the panel.
Eisele said the company is preparing for its next LauncherOne mission “in a few months,” estimating it to be in late in the first quarter or early in the second quarter of 2021. “We will take a little bit more time to analyze the data from our last Demo 2 launch,” he said, noting that the rocket for the upcoming mission is now in final integration.
That launch will carry payloads for the U.S. Air Force as well as a 6U cubesat for the Dutch air force, a contract announced Jan. 25. Eisele said the launch will also carry two 3U cubesats from SatRevolution, a Polish company developing a 14-satellite constellation to provide medium-resolution multispectral imagery. Virgin Orbit announced the deal with SatRevolution shortly before the panel Feb. 9, but did not disclose when the satellites would launch beyond later this year.
“We’re pleased to have them all on our next launch, and we look forward to continuing to provide a high cadence and flexibility going forward,” he said.
Rocket Lab also announced the manifest for its next Electron mission, scheduled for mid-March from New Zealand. That launch will carry seven satellites for a mix of government and commercial customers, including Rocket Lab’s second Photon satellite. The Photon will test technologies needed for the launch later this year of NASA’s CAPSTONE lunar spacecraft, which will use Photon as a kick stage.
“We’re over 90% booked on both our launch and our space systems division” for this year, said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, during the conference panel.
WASHINGTON — Among the 143 satellites that flew to orbit Jan. 24 on SpaceX’s record-breaking rideshare were technology demonstrations and payloads of interest to the U.S. military, including satellite components, in-space laser communications and remote sensing.
Blue Canyon Technologies deployed new satellite components it plans to incorporate in Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency satellites. Now owned by Raytheon, Blue Canyon is producing spacecraft for DARPA’s Blackjack low-Earth orbit constellation. The company’s CEO George Stafford said these new components include attitude control systems and reaction wheels intended to improve the performance of satellites.
Other smallsats that flew on SpaceX’s Transporter-1 were laser communications payloads — known as optical inter-satellite links — that allow satellites to pass massive amounts of data to other satellites and to ground stations. Germany’s Tesat-Spacecom sent to orbit a laser communications terminal the company claims is the smallest in the industry, weighing less than a pound.
Tesat-Spacecom spokesman Matthias Motzigemba told SpaceNews the company plans to test the optical communications payload for up to two years and conduct experiments aimed at building a global network of space and ground nodes.
Motzigemba said he could not disclose the customers for these terminals but said Tesat currently supplies optical inter-satellite links to U.S. companies building low-Earth orbit constellations.
The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency is especially interested in lightweight laser communications terminals for the fleet of LEO satellites it plans to deploy over the next few years. DARPA and SDA were hoping to launch two optical inter-satellite link cubesats on Transporter-1 but the satellites were accidentally damaged at the payload processing facility.
SDA Director Derek Tournear commented in a social media post that losing those two satellites was “painful” and that Transporter-1 would have had 145 satellites on board if the two laser comms payloads had made it.
SpaceX in this mission flew 10 of its own Starlink internet satellites equipped with laser links. The U.S. military plans to use Starlink to connect airplanes and other platforms, and optical inter-satellite links are preferred because they are more cyber secure than traditional radio-frequency communications.
The largest share of smallsats in Transporter-1 were imaging satellites from Planet as well as radar imaging satellites from Capella Space and Iceye, and radio-frequency mapping satellites from HawkEye 360. These and other companies are expanding their fleets as the Pentagon and the intelligence community plan to increase use of commercial remote sensing services.
Better technology needed for satellite tracking
The U.S. military currently serves as space traffic controller. Space Command’s 18th Space Control Squadron monitors satellites and space debris for close approaches and posts their location on space-track.org.
The unprecedented number of small satellites launched by SpaceX in a single flight is drawing attention to the challenges of managing space traffic as orbits become more congested.
Satellite tracker and astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said Transporter-1 included satellites from 24 different owners and operators, most from the United States and a handful from 10 other countries.
Concerns about spaceflight safety are creating opportunities for startups like Kayhan Space Corp., which developed cloud-based software to help military and commercial satellite operators plan maneuvers so they can avoid collisions.
The company has received two Small Business Innovation Research contracts from the U.S. Air Force to support satellite tracking efforts.
“There is a lot of room for improvement in tracking of space objects,” Kayhan Space CEO and co-founder Siamak Hesar told SpaceNews. Today it is difficult to precisely establish the location of small objects like cubesats, he said. As rideshares become more frequent, said Hesar, the 18th Space Control Squadron and civilian organizations will need better tools to manage the congestion and avoid costly mishaps.
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 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.
WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Command’s traffic watchers have been working with SpaceX and satellite operators in recent days in preparation for Transporter-1, a rideshare mission scheduled to launch Jan. 23 that could set a new record for the most satellites ever launched in a single flight.
Space Command crews at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, will attempt to track as many as 143 commercial and government satellites that Transporter-1 will deploy to a sun-synchronous orbit 500 kilometers above Earth.
The 18th Space Control Squadron, which monitors satellites and space debris for close approaches, has been coordinating with SpaceX and the satellite owners and operators “to understand the launch plan for Transporter-1 and the satellite deployment sequence so that we can provide optimal spaceflight safety support,” Diana McKissock, a space situational awareness officer at the 18th SPCS, said in a statement to SpaceNews.
Transporter-1 is SpaceX’s first dedicated commercial rideshare on a Falcon 9 rocket.This will be a record-breaking ride with 143 satellites, beating India’s PSLV-C37 launch of 104 satellites in February 2017.
The ability to track so many payloads from a single launch is a concern for satellite watchers. “One of the problems is that we don’t even know for sure what all of the 143 satellites are,” spaceflight analyst and astronomer Jonathan McDowell told SpaceNews. “It’s certainly going to be a challenge to sort them all out,” he said. SpaceX has not released a detailed manifest for this rideshare “which is disappointing,” said McDowell.
McDowell said there are a couple of experiments on this mission to test RFID tags that will identify satellites. “If those eventually get wide adoption it will make these large cluster launches easier to track.”
Some information has emerged on the satellites flying on Transporter-1. The largest customer on this mission is Planet, with 48 SuperDove satellites hitching a ride to space. There are 10 of SpaceX’s own Starlink internet satellites and 36 very small satellites from Swarm Technologies which is building an internet-of-things service with “SpaceBee” spacecraft the size of a slice of bread. Another payload riding on Transporter-1 is Spaceflight’s SHERPA-FX — a new type of spacecraft that will dispense 18 secondary payloads.
Smallsat rideshares expected to grow
The competitive pricing and reliability of SpaceX rideshares make them an attractive option for small satellite operators so these bulk launches are expected to become routine. Experts note that consolidating dozens of smallsats from multiple customers on a single flight is efficient but has implications for spaceflight safety that have yet to be sorted out.
A new report by the Aerospace Corp. warns that single deployments of small payloads — some the size of a shoebox — can create confusion for space traffic controllers. Current space traffic management systems “do not have time to react to the addition of so many new space objects all at once,” the report says. It can take weeks or months to identify objects and some may never be identified at all.
Aerospace Corp. engineer Mark Skinner said the industry should agree on the adoption of standards to make smallsats identifiable. “This needs to become part of the marketplace,” he said on a recent webinar.
The 18th SPCS “can’t solve this problem,” he said. “They can’t find companies’ cubesats.”
If 100 satellites are launched at once, said Skinner, “you might be left with 25 or so that aren’t identified, at least for the first several months.”
Andrew Abraham, also of Aerospace Corp., said cubesats and nanosatellites “all look the same to a ground radar.” Some companies put ID devices on their satellites using optical tags, blinking lights or GPS trackers. But there are no clear regulations or guidelines even as private companies and governments plan to send thousands more satellites to orbit in the coming years.
The job of the 18th SPCS would be easier if all satellites had ID tags “but they can’t regulate it or require it,” said Abraham. “This is a role for a civilian agency.”
The 18th Space Control Squadron as a public service provides satellites’ positional data and conjunction warnings to satellite operators. It also helps facilitate data exchange between operators. But McKissock noted that spaceflight safety is the responsibility of the launch provider and the satellite operators.
The Trump administration in 2018 directed the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense. Both agencies are working on a transition plan but it could take Commerce several more years to establish the capabilities it needs to manage space traffic.
In an interview, Emiliano Kargieman, chief executive of Satellogic, said the low prices and frequent launch opportunities that SpaceX offered led his company to sign up. “The new rideshare program that SpaceX has put together has reduced the price on the order of four or five times on a per-kilogram basis,” he said. “That really made the rideshare program compete very well in the market and it caused us to start having conversations with SpaceX.”
Satellogic plans to conduct its next four launches with SpaceX, starting in June. Additional launches will take place in December and in March and June of 2022. All will be rideshare missions going to sun-synchronous orbits, with at least four satellites on the June launch. The company, which has 13 operational satellites currently, projects having a constellation of about 60 satellites by the end of 2022 or early 2023.
The company also has the option of flying satellites as rideshare payloads on Starlink missions. Those would go to mid-inclination orbits, which Kargieman said would complement the bulk of the constellation in sun-synchronous orbits. “They give us more diversity in times for revisits for points of interest,” he said, noting the company has one satellite in such an orbit. “We are looking into deploying more mid-inclination satellites over the next 12–18 months, but we have not yet decided exactly when those launches are going to be.”
Another benefit of the agreement, he said, is the flexibility it offers in determining how many satellites to fly, as well as options for flying satellites on Starlink missions. “It gives us the possibility of making those decisions closer to the launch date.”
While SpaceX is Satellogic’s preferred launch provider, Kargieman did not rule out occasionally using other providers. “Because we might need some particular orbit, we might still decide to launch a dedicated rocket every once in a while to make sure we have the satellites where we want them,” he said.
Satellogic is seeing strong demand for the high-resolution imagery its satellites produce, he said, with that demand accelerating in the last year from government customers in particular. “On the government side it’s very clear that there is significant unsatisfied demand,” he said. “The pandemic has accelerated the demand for Earth observation data and geospatial analytics.”
That demand was a key factor in the decision to select SpaceX, with its launch services allowing Satellogic to accelerate deployment of its constellation. “That’s a good point to invest more,” Kargieman said. “We’re feeling strongly that this is a time for us to double down, scale and continue to bring this data to market at an affordable cost.”
WASHINGTON — In-space transportation provider Momentus is delaying its first operational mission, which was to fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 later this month, because of delays completing an interagency review.
In a Jan. 4 statement, Momentus said the flight of its first Vigoride tug, which was to be part of the payloads on a Falcon 9 dedicated rideshare mission launching as soon as Jan. 14, will be delayed to later in the year because it was unable to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for the mission.
“This move will allow for the additional time necessary to secure FAA approval of Momentus’ payloads, including completion of a standard interagency review,” the company said in a statement.
The company did not elaborate on that review, but part of the FAA commercial launch licensing process is a review of the payload that the agency describes as intended “to determine whether its launch would jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States.” That process can include consultation with other government agencies.
In a Jan. 5 document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the form of an interview, Fred Kennedy, president of Momentus, said there was no specific issue that was delaying that review. “The FAA did not express any specific concerns of its own, but rather indicated that more time was needed to complete its interagency review of Momentus’ payload,” he said.
He added that the company had completed interagency reviews for other licenses it needs, such as one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which licenses a camera on the Vigoride vehicle as part of commercial remote sensing regulations. Kennedy said Momentus “recently cleared an interagency review” for that license, and NOAA’s website lists Momentus among the companies that have a commercial remote sensing license.
Momentus did not disclose in its announcement the payloads on the mission, known as Vigoride-1 or VR-1. However, in a Federal Communications Commission filing in June, the company said the vehicle would carry five cubesats, ranging in size from 1.8 to 4.4 kilograms each, from Aurora Propulsion Technologies, SatRevolution, SpaceManic and Steamjet Space Systems.
In the FCC filing, Momentus said that Vigoride-1 would be released from the Falcon 9’s upper stage in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of about 525 kilometers. Vigoride-1 would then use its onboard propulsion to raise its orbit to 570 kilometers, then deploy the payloads. Vigoride-1 would then perform a deorbit maneuver to decrease its perigee to as low as 300 kilometers, enabling a reentry within a year. Without the deorbit maneuver, it would remain in orbit for up to 16 years.
One of those customers said they would continue to work with Momentus despite the delay. “We remain committed to Momentus’ value-add transport and service platform,” said Grzegorz Zwolinski, chief executive and co-founder of SatRevolution, in the Momentus statement about the Vigoride-1 delay.
Momentus said the delay in the Vigoride-1 launch would not affect its financial projections for the year. In an investor presentation filed with the SEC Dec. 14, the company projected revenues of $20 million in 2021, but a loss of $46 million for the year.
The company said that the merger is still scheduled to close in the first quarter of this year, pending approval by shareholders and other regulatory approvals.
Vigoride-1 was scheduled to be part of the payloads of a Falcon 9 mission called Transporter-1 by SpaceX, the first in a series of dedicated rideshare missions. The mission is expected to carry several dozen smallsats, although SpaceX has not published a roster of payloads.
That list of payloads remains in flux after two Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency satellites that were to fly on the mission were damaged in pre-launch preparations. The satellites, named Mandrake 1 and Mandrake 2, were to test advanced technologies DARPA plans to implement on future Blackjack satellites.
SpaceX is also seeking to add Starlink satellites to the Transporter-1 launch. In a Jan. 5 FCC filing, SpaceX disclosed it held a conversation with FCC officials the previous day stating that it plans to fly 10 Starlink satellites on the mission if it receives FCC authorization to do so. SpaceX, in recent FCC filings, sought permission to launch Starlink satellites into a polar orbit on an undisclosed “upcoming polar launch availability.”
SAN FRANCISCO – Exolaunch 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.
With a Falcon 9 rocket launch Friday, SpaceX added 57 more satellites to the Starlink broadband fleet and deployed a pair of piggyback commercial Earth-imaging reconnaissance satellites for BlackSky, wrapping up a busy week that began with SpaceX’s return of two NASA astronauts to Earth and the first low-altitude test flight of the company’s next-generation Starship vehicle.
The 59 commercial satellites took off at 1:12:05 a.m. EDT (0512:05 GMT) on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Nine Merlin 1D engines flashed to life with a deep rumble to hurl the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket into the sky with 1.7 million pound of thrust. After pitching to align with a trajectory toward the northeast from Florida’s Space Coast, the Falcon 9 soared into the stratosphere trailing a brilliant orange exhaust plume before shutting down its first stage engines two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.
Seconds later, the first stage booster dropped away from the Falcon 9’s second stage to begin a guided descent toward SpaceX’s drone ship parked in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral.
The Merlin engine on the second stage ignited two times to maneuver the Starlink and BlackSky satellites to a near-circular orbit nearly 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth. Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s first stage booster flew to a propulsive landing on SpaceX’s rocket recovery vessel, a football field-sized platform positioned nearly 400 miles (around 630 kilometers) downrange from the Kennedy Space Center.
Two BlackSky Earth-imaging satellites, each with a mass of about 121 pounds (55 kilograms), deployed from the top of the stack of Starlink spacecraft more than an hour into the mission. BlackSky booked the launch for its satellites through Spaceflight, a Seattle-based rideshare broker, utilizing room in the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload compartment made available by SpaceX.
Read our earlier story for background on BlackSky and SpaceX’s rideshare launch service offering.
BlackSky is deploying a fleet of Earth observation satellites designed to monitor changes across Earth’s surface, feeding near real-time geospatial intelligence data to governments and corporate clients. The two microsatellites on Friday’s mission are designated Global 7 and Global 8, but they are actually the fifth and sixth operational satellites in the BlackSky fleet, which the company could eventually number more than 50 satellites, depending on customer demand.
The BlackSky satellites were built by LeoStella, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space, a major European satellite manufacturer. LeoStella’s production facility is located in Tukwila, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.
The satellites have electrothermal propulsion systems that use water as a propellant. Each of the current generation of BlackSky Global spacecraft can capture up to 1,000 color images per day, with a resolution of about 3 feet (1 meter).
With the piggyback payloads away, the Falcon 9’s upper stage spun up for release of the 57 Starlink satellites at 2:45 a.m. EDT (0645 GMT). Live video beamed back to Earth from the Falcon 9 rocket showed the flat-panel satellites flying free of the upper stage as they soared nearly 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean near Baja California.
All 57 Starlink broadband satellites launched this morning from the Kennedy Space Center have successfully separated from their Falcon 9 rocket in orbit.
SpaceX declared success, concluding the 90th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010, and the 13th Falcon 9 launch of the year. It was also the 57th time SpaceX has recovered a reusable Falcon first stage booster, and it marked the fifth flight of the booster designated B1051.
The launch early Friday came less than five days after the return of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to Earth with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, completing the ship’s first mission with crew members on-board. The test flight sets the stage for NASA’s certification of the Crew Dragon for regular crew rotation flights to the International Space Station.
SpaceX’s Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet service around the world. With Friday’s mission, SpaceX has launched 595 flat-panel Starlink spacecraft since beginning full-scale deployment of the orbital network in May 2019, making the company the owner of the world’s largest fleet of satellites.
Each of the flat-panel satellites weighs about a quarter-ton, and are built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington. Once in orbit, they will deploy solar panels to begin producing electricity, then activate their krypton ion thrusters to raise their altitude to around 341 miles, or 550 kilometers.
SpaceX says it needs 24 launches to provide Starlink Internet coverage over nearly all of the populated world, and 12 launches could enable coverage of higher latitude regions, such as Canada and the northern United States.
The launch Friday will be the 10th mission to carry Starlink satellites into orbit, but the Starlink spacecraft deployed on the network’s first dedicated launch were designed to demonstrate satellite and payload performance. SpaceX has not said if any of those satellites might be incorporated into the operational fleet.
The Falcon 9 rocket can loft up to 60 Starlink satellites — each weighing about a quarter-ton — on a single Falcon 9 launch. But launches with secondary payloads, such as BlackSky’s new Earth-imaging satellites, can carry fewer Starlinks to allow the rideshare passengers room to fit on the rocket.
The initial phase of the Starlink network will number 1,584 satellites, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filings with the Federal Communications Commission. But SpaceX plans launch thousands more satellites, depending on market demand, and the company has regulatory approval from the FCC to operate up to 12,000 Starlink relay nodes in low Earth orbit.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, says the Starlink network could earn revenue to fund the company’s ambition for interplanetary space travel, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.
SpaceX fans sleuthing through coding on the Starlink website last month found images of a prototype version of the antenna consumers will use to connect to the Internet network.
Musk responded to the tweet, writing the the Starlink ground terminal “has motors to self-orient for optimal view angle. No expert installer required.”
SpaceX has not released pricing information for the Starlink service.
SpaceX says it will soon begin “beta testing” using the Starlink network. The company is collecting email information and mailing addresses from prospective customers, and SpaceX says it will provide updates on Starlink news and service availability to those who sign up.
The beta testing is expected to begin for users living at higher latitudes — such as the northern United States and southern Canada — where the partially-complete Starlink satellite fleet can provide more consistent service. SpaceX will send a Starlink kit including a small antenna, router and other equipment to people selected for beta testing.
Astronomers have raised concerns about the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, and other companies that plan to launch large numbers of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit.
The Starlink satellites are brighter than expected, and are visible in trains soon after each launch, before spreading out and dimming as they travel higher above Earth.
SpaceX introduced a darker coating on a Starlink satellite launched in January in a bid to reduce the amount of sunlight the spacecraft reflects down to Earth. That offered some improvement, but not enough for ultra-sensitive observatories like the U.S government-funded Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will collect all-sky images to study distant galaxies, stars, and search for potentially dangerous asteroids close to Earth.
SpaceX launched a satellite June 3 with a new unfolding radio-transparent sunshade to block sunlight from reaching bright surfaces on the spacecraft, such as its antennas. SpaceX says all Starlink satellites beginning with the spacecraft launched Friday will carry the sunshades.
Coupled with changes in how the satellites are oriented when they are at lower altitudes soon after launch, the sun visors could alleviate the most serious impacts on astronomy from the Starlink network, and eliminate the Starlink satellites from naked eye vision once they reach their 341-mile-high operational orbit.
The Vera Rubin Observatory’s 3,200-megapixel camera will start astronomical surveys in 2022. Each image will cover a region of the sky the size of 40 full moons, and many of the images will include light streaks left by satellites from the Starlink network, and potentially other satellite constellations.
The worst impacts will come after dusk and before dawn. That’s a time of day when astronomers want to search for asteroids.
Astronomers on the Vera Rubin Observatory team say SpaceX has been working with them since last year to try to reduce the impacts of the Starlink network on their scientific program. Astronomers illuminated a Vera Rubin imaging detector in a test to see how it would respond to the passage of a satellite as bright as a Starlink. They found the satellite leaves behind not just a single trail, but “ghost” trails away from the spacecraft’s path.
Scientists from Vera Rubin Observatory said the ghost artifacts could be removed with software if the Starlink satellites are dimmer than 7th magnitude. Observations of the Starlink spacecraft with the darker coating indicate that change dimmed the satellite to about 6.1 magnitude, somewhat shy of Vera Rubin’s requirement.