SpaceX set to launch more small satellites
SUNDAY’S SCHEDULED SPACEX LAUNCH IS THREE YEARS IN THE MAKING.
For the first time, dozens of small satellites will ride atop a SpaceX rocket, as a Falcon 9 is scheduled to blast into orbit Sunday.
The 64 tiny satellites range from one built by a Florida middle school to measure the viability of thawed bacteria to a Honeywell Aerospace demonstrator that will test new ship communication technology.
All 34 organizations found their way onto the Falcon 9 rocket with the help of a sort of launch services broker – a relatively niche industry that has grown in tandem with the burgeoning small-satellite market.
Small-satellite startups sometimes have little experience buying launches from companies like Hawthornebased SpaceX and France’s Arianespace, said Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International. At the same time, these launch service providers are looking for help to coordinate the deluge of developers looking to send small satellites into space, he said.
Sunday’s scheduled SpaceX launch is three years in the making for Seattle-based Spaceflight, which bought the entire Falcon 9 rocket to accommodate its various customers. The launch will be Spaceflight’s first ride-share mission dedicated exclusively to small satellites.
The purchase indicates that the small satellite industry is “healthy and thriving,” said Kerri Cahoy, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.
“There’s a lot of new businesses … and a steady stream” of customers, Cahoy said.
Spaceflight got its start about six years ago by helping customers test their small satellites, obtain the necessary launch and operating licenses before shipping the spacecraft to the launch site, and integrate them onto the rocket, said Curt Blake, Spaceflight president.
Typically, small satellites get to space by “piggybacking” on the launch of a larger satellite and fitting in where there’s space on the rocket. The best known example is a 2017 launch of the Indian space agency’s PSLV rocket, which deployed a 1,574-pound satellite as well as 103 small satellites.
While ride-sharing can be a more affordable way to reach orbit, it also means the tiny spacecraft are subject to the timing and orbit destination of the primary satellite. There is now another way. Huntington Beach’s Rocket Lab has developed and launched its Electron rocket, which is designed specifically to carry small satellites and to allow more flexibility in time and orbit.