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SpaceX’s rideshare carried small satellite technology of interest to U.S. military

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. 

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