LOGAN, Utah — Seattle-based Spaceflight is confirming that it has more than 70 satellites from 18 countries signed up for launch on a first-of-its-kind dedicated rideshare mission, due to fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket by the end of the year.
The dozens of spacecraft include two SkySat high-resolution Earth-imaging satellites from Planet, which are designated as the lead payloads. But there’ll also be more exotic payloads on board — including an art project that’s designed to shine in the night sky, and a satellite built by middle-schoolers to test the viability of bacteria in the vacuum of space.
The current tally of 71 satellites on Spaceflight’s SmallSat Express won’t set the record for the most satellites launched at one time. That distinction will still belong to the Indian Space Research Organization, which launched a PSLV rocket with 104 satellites on board last year. But it will represent Spaceflight’s first purchase of the full capacity of a Falcon 9 rocket, and the first use of an innovative set of satellite deployers known as the Upper Free Flyer and the Lower Free Flyer.
Spaceflight, which is a division of Spaceflight Industries, typically places secondary payloads on rockets that have room left over after accommodating somebody else’s primary payload.
Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight, told GeekWire that the Falcon 9’s payload space is nearly completely full. “There are a couple of slots, but really, most everything is done,” he said. “To add somebody at this stage would take a little bit of rework.”
Blake declined to say how much Spaceflight is paying, but SpaceX’s list price for a Falcon 9 launch is in the neighborhood of $60 million. Blake also said he couldn’t yet provide a precise date for launch, other than that it’s likely to be roughly in the middle of this year’s fourth quarter.
SpaceX would launch the Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, into a nearly pole-to-pole orbit. Such a trajectory keeps the satellites in the same plane in relation to the sun, which is known as a sun-synchronous orbit, or SSO. For this reason, Spaceflight refers to the mission as “SSO-A: SmallSat Express.”
Spaceflight released some of the names of satellites and sponsoring organizations, including Planet (with two SkySats and three of its smaller Dove satellites) and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which is sending up its Skyhawk-1 sea-observing satellite.
“It’s been a tremendous team effort with NASA and others to design and build the low-cost, next generation, miniature ocean color sensors aboard a CubeSat, and we’re excited to work with Spaceflight to see it off into orbit,” John Morrison, a marine scientist at UNC-Wilmington, said today in a news release. “By making the data from the SeaHawk-1 available to everyone for free, our hope is to address a number of critical societal needs, especially in coastal regions.”
For more than a year, satellite-watchers have been keeping close track of Spaceflight’s manifest. They laid out a 74-satellite list on NASASpaceflight.com well in advance of today’s announcement, which was timed to coincide with the SmallSat Conference in Utah. That list includes the Global 2 Earth-observation satellite from BlackSky, which is a sister subsidiary of Spaceflight Industries.
The list also includes Orbital Reflector, a project created by artist Trevor Paglen with backing from the Nevada Museum of Art and Global Western. Paglen’s satellite is designed to unfurl a long inflatable sculpture made from reflective plastic film. When inflated, the material should reflect enough sunlight to become visible to the naked eye after sunset or before sunrise.
“This is making a piece of abstract art on a rocket. By doing that, you encourage people to look at it and think about the heavens,” Paglen told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year.
WeissSat-1, a NASA-backed nanosatellite designed by elementary and middle-school students at the Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is also due to go into orbit on the SmallSat Express. The satellite will carry colonies of extremophile bacteria frozen in ice, and measure the microbes’ viability as they thaw out in the space environment. The observations, beamed down to Earth via the GlobalStar telecom network, could well lead to the publication of an astrobiology research paper.
Blake said Spaceflight’s rideshare model opens the door to innovative uses for small satellites.
“If you think of access to space as a platform, it really starts to let people brainstorm,” he said. “What could you do if you know you can get something up to space at a price that heretofore wasn’t really available? That, I think, is the message. It’s opening up space to all kinds of new applications … not unlike the whole slew of applications spawned by the iPhone or any other kind of platform.”
Spaceflight has launched more than 140 satellites to date, using a variety of rockets including SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Northrop Grumman’s Antares, India’s PSLV, and Russia’s Soyuz and Dnepr. It recently announced agreements for launches on Rocket Lab’s Electron, ArianeSpace’s Vega and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne.
The company has already launched 22 spacecraft on two missions this year and has plans to launch 97 more across six upcoming missions by the end of 2018. The company is planning about 10 more missions in 2019.