SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched Seattle-based Spaceflight’s first-ever dedicated rideshare mission, a satellite extravaganza aimed at placing 64 spacecraft in low Earth orbit.
Today’s liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California came off at 10:34 a.m. PT, sending the scorch-marked rocket into clear skies. The mission had been delayed several times over the past couple of weeks, due to concerns about upper-level winds and the need for more pre-launch inspections.
This mission delivered a first for SpaceX as well as for Spaceflight: It marked the first time SpaceX sent the same first-stage booster into space and back three times.
The upgraded Block 5 booster had its previous liftoffs in May and August, and today SpaceX recovered the booster yet again. Minutes after launch, it touched down on a drone ship stationed out in the Pacific Ocean, christened “Just Read the Instructions.”
SpaceX also sent out another ship, called Mr. Steven, to try recovering the rocket’s nose cone in a giant catcher’s-mitt net. Reusing the nose cone, also known as the fairing, could save millions of dollars for each launch.
In a tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that Mr. Steven missed the catch, but that the ship’s crew recovered the two halves of the fairing from the water. “Plan is to dry them out and launch again,” he wrote. “Nothing wrong with a little swim.”
This mission for Spaceflight, known as “SSO-A: The SmallSat Express,” broke SpaceX’s record of 18 launches in a calendar year — a record set just last year.
Over the course of several hours, 64 satellites were to be deployed from the Falcon 9’s second stage and from two free-flying spacecraft designed by Spaceflight.
Spaceflight is a subsidiary of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, a venture backed by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s venture fund and other investors. One of the payloads aboard the SmallSat Express was an Earth observation satellite built for BlackSky, which is Spaceflight Industries’ other subsidiary.
BlackSky’s Global-2 satellite will join Global-1, which was launched just last week on an Indian PSLV rocket. Eventually, BlackSky aims to have a satellite constellation in low-Earth orbit to provide on-demand, near-real-time Earth imagery in a range of wavelengths.
Small satellites like Global-2 typically fly as secondary payloads, subservient to the needs of the mission’s primary payload. Spaceflight’s dedicated rideshare model takes a different approach: Spaceflight purchased the entire launch capacity for a SpaceX Falcon 9, then sold portions of that capacity at retail prices.
“This model lowers the barriers to entry for people that want to get smallsats on orbit, and this enables all kinds of business plans to come to fruition,” Spaceflight CEO Curt Blake explained in a video about the mission.
The satellites on SmallSat Express are all destined to go into a nearly pole-to-pole, sun-synchronous orbit, which is in a stable alignment with respect to the sun and is considered particularly attractive for Earth imaging.
Two Planet SkySat remote-sensing satellites were considered the lead customers for SmallSat Express, and three smaller Planet Dove satellites were also placed on board — but there’s a wide variety of other payloads, including:
- Orbital Reflector: Artist Trevor Pagler and the Nevada Museum of Art sent up a nanosatellite with a sheet of reflective plastic packed inside. When the sheet is unfurled, it should shine in the night sky after sunset and before sunrise (potentially irritating astronomers in the process).
- ENOCH: A 24-karat-gold, Egyptian-style canopic jar said to contain the soul of African-American astronaut Robert Lawrence was flown as an art project for sculptor Tavares Strachan and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
- Elysium Star 2: This nanosatellite carries the cremated remains of loved ones that will be dispersed in orbit as a “shooting star memorial.”
- SpaceBEEs: Swarm Technologies sent up five small experimental two-way communication satellites, months after an unauthorized launch got the company in trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration.
- FalconSat-6, STPSat-5, ICE-Cap, ORS-7: Several satellites were flown for Coast Guard and military researchers to test advanced technologies and study the space environment.
- Capella-1: This Earth-imaging satellite, flown for Capella Space and dubbed “Denali,” will help the company fine-tune its synthetic-aperture radar imaging system.
- Audacy Zero: Audacy will test a miniaturized Ka-band radio system that could serve as the foundation for the world’s first commercial relay satellite network.
- HawkEye 360 Pathfinder: Three satellites will monitor radio signals to keep track of ships at sea, including “dark ships” that may be engaged in illegal activities.
- IRVINE-02: Developed by high-school students from Irvine, Calif., to test an electric propulsion system and a laser communication system.
- WeissSat-1: Developed by middle-school students at Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to test a lab-on-a-chip experiment aimed at assessing the viability of thawed-out bacteria in space.
Today’s 64-satellite launch set a U.S. record for the number of different payloads on a single launch vehicle. The world record is held by India’s PSLV, or Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which put 104 satellites (including nine that were signed up by Spaceflight) into orbit last year.
In a pre-launch interview, Blake told GeekWire that Spaceflight plans to continue offering dedicated rideshare missions on SpaceX’s Falcon 9, as well as smaller-scale launch opportunities on rockets including the PSLV, Europe’s Vega, Russia’s Soyuz and Dnepr, Northrop Grumman’s Antares, Rocket Lab’s Electron and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne.
Blake compared the range of options to the assortment of trains, buses, taxis and rideshare vehicles that are available for on-the-ground travel. “We do rideshare on all the different vehicles,” he said.
Meanwhile, SpaceX’s 20th launch of the year is scheduled for Tuesday, when a different Falcon 9 rocket is due to send a robotic Dragon cargo spaceship to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40 in Florida.
Update for 5:24 p.m. PT Dec. 3: In a news release, Spaceflight said it successfully launched the 64 spacecraft via the Falcon 9, signaling the end of deployments. “It was a good day,” Spaceflight said in a tweet. Reports about deployments are filtering in from satellite operators as well. Here’s the current roundup:
SpaceX has successfully deployed four microsats and a pair of Spaceflight free-flying deployers in orbit. This ends SpaceX’s role in today’s mission, which is now in the hands of Spaceflight's free-flyers to release 60 more satellites in the coming hours. https://t.co/paq40MckXs pic.twitter.com/xTKitu3Jhp
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) December 3, 2018
— BlackSky (@BlackSky_Inc) December 3, 2018
Confirmed – ICEYE-X2 SAR satellite has separated successfully. Communications with the satellite have been established at 19:58 CET, December 3rd 2018. Thank you @SpaceX @SpaceflightInc! Launch success! Read more here: https://t.co/iRIPLflYTm
— ICEYE (@iceyefi) December 3, 2018
Our joint Ghalam-SSTL spacecraft operations team have successfully made contact with KazSTSAT – nominal telemetry received on this first pass. Our thanks to @SpaceflightInc & @SpaceX
Press Release at https://t.co/BsUhTzS6Fn pic.twitter.com/hZ5ow5BR6p
— Surrey Satellites (@SurreySat) December 3, 2018
We're in business. Data successfully received!
— Eu:CROPIS (@EuCROPIS) December 3, 2018
We've made contact with the two SkySats, the lead payload on @SpaceX's SSO-A launch, who have joined the rest of Planet’s largest-ever high resolution fleet. The Doves are up next!
— Planet (@planetlabs) December 3, 2018
Flock 3s, reporting for duty! Our three Doves have made contact and joined the rest of our 130+ sats in low earth orbit. Thanks for the ride today, @SpaceX and @SpaceflightInc! Read more in our post-launch blog here: https://t.co/pyEFGgNMUi pic.twitter.com/20zn91ZLuu
— Planet (@planetlabs) December 4, 2018
All #ISILaunch20 satellites on #SSOA now confirmed to be deployed! First contacts to follow soon. A big thanks to our friends @SpaceflightInc for the service and the ride. @PWSat2 @HiberGlobal @S100Sat @cpfjo @MOVE_II
— ISILaunch Services (@ISILaunch) December 4, 2018
Telemetry confirms successful deployment of all three of HawkEye 360's Pathfinder satellites! Thanks to @SpaceX and @SpaceflightInc for a great ride into orbit. #SSOA #smallsatexpress pic.twitter.com/2aNx6U97Lj
— HawkEye 360 (@hawkeye360) December 3, 2018
Nominal signal received from KAIST's NextSat-l. Thanks for @SpaceflightInc and @SpaceX. NextSat-I is the first satellite to demonstrate Korea's small/cube sat technology. Photo is inside the KAIST satellite office. (KAIST=Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) pic.twitter.com/n1j6Tebb7j
— S.Korean Spaceflight (@Kor_Spaceflight) December 3, 2018
— PW-Sat2 (@PWSat2) December 3, 2018
All eyes on Audacy Zero, our first satellite in space! This demo mission will test our very own Ka-band satellite radio that we designed and built, as well as our ground station in Napa Valley. Read more: https://t.co/0AgPvqhMGV pic.twitter.com/ZxVZDa0T0Z
— Audacy (@Audacy) December 3, 2018
Congratulations, high-fives and smiles all around upon hearing that payloads have reached desired orbit on @SpaceflightInc #SSOA #smallsatexpress mission @SpaceX; the #NewSpace community really pulls for one another because it knows how difficult, and rewarding, the work is pic.twitter.com/lYeAMAP0f8
— Tinh Tran (@tinhtranUNITE) December 4, 2018
Clarification for 3:23 p.m. PT Dec. 3: Some readers said the headline used on a previous version of this story implied that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster had previously flown three times, so we’ve changed it to avoid confusion.