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A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off in April, sending cargo to the International Space Station. The payloads included Planetary Resources’ A3R satellite, which was flown under an arrangement with Seattle-based Spaceflight. (Credit: SpaceX)

In the first deal of its kind, Seattle-based Spaceflight says it’s buying a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will be set aside exclusively for launching other people’s small satellites into orbit.

The first dedicated rideshare launch is due to go into sun-synchronous low Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during the latter half of 2017, said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight’s launch business. Sun-synchronous orbits are particularly popular for Earth imaging satellites, and Spaceflight anticipates buying a dedicated SpaceX Falcon 9 every year to service the market.

“By purchasing and manifesting the entire SpaceX rocket, Spaceflight is well-positioned to meet the small-sat industry’s growing demand for routine, reliable access to space,” Blake said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Typically, an organization that has something to put into orbit will strike a deal with a launch provider like SpaceX, with some extra room available for secondary payloads.

For example, Taiwan’s National Space Organization plans to launch its Formosat-5 Earth observation satellite on a Falcon 9 in early 2016, and Spaceflight has lined up 87 small payloads to piggyback on that launch. (Those payloads include Arkyd 6, a research mini-satellite that will test technologies for Planetary Resources’ asteroid prospecting operation.)

In contrast, Spaceflight is buying the whole rocket in 2017 and selling the payload space to customers. The “Sun Synch Express” will send up satellites as small as 11 pounds (5 kilograms) and as big as 1,265 pounds (575 kilograms), at published prices ranging from $295,000 to upwards of $17.5 million. Spaceflight said the manifest is already nearly at capacity.

Blake told GeekWire that up to two “co-lead” customers will be given a role in setting the timing of the launch, in exchange for paying a negotiated premium. “This enables them to have some control over the schedule,” he said. “It’s akin to going out and buying your own launch vehicle.”

An investigation into the disintegration of a Falcon 9 rocket just after launch in June is still under way, and SpaceX launches have been suspended until the Federal Aviation Administration gives the go-ahead. The launch schedule is expected to be back on track well before 2017, however.

SpaceX’s published price for a Falcon 9 launch is $61.2 million, and Blake said that price tag was “in the ballpark” for the Sun Synch Express. He said the payloads will be processed at the company’s facility in Tukwila, Wash., then shipped to Vandenberg for liftoff.

The deal with SpaceX opens new opportunities for Spaceflight, a company that specializes in services for small-satellite operators. To date, Spaceflight has brokered the launch of 81 satellites as secondary payloads on Russian, Indian and U.S. rockets, including the Falcon 9.

SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, suggested this won’t be the last deal of its kind. “Dedicated missions for Rideshare-class payloads are an excellent way to promote space enterprise and research,” she said in a statement. “We are pleased that Spaceflight has successfully brought this multifaceted partnership together.”

Former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver will discuss the future of space exploration and the opportunities for commercial space ventures in Seattle on Thursday at the GeekWire Summit.

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