SpaceX set to launch more small satel­lites

Star-Telegram (Sunday) - - News - BY SAMAN­THA MASUNAGA

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 small­satel­lite market.

Small-satel­lite star­tups some­times have lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence buy­ing launches from com­pa­nies like Hawthorne-based 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 rideshare 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. Be­ing able to sell more than 60 spots on a rocket to cus­tomers is “im­pres­sive,” she 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. A ma­jor­ity of those were Earth-imag­ing satel­lites made by San Fran­cisco-based Planet Labs Inc.

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. A slew of other com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Long Beach-based Vir­gin Or­bit and Tuc­son-based Vec­tor, are work­ing on their own small-satel­lite launch­ers.

Space­flight ne­go­ti­ates with launch com­pa­nies to find and pur­chase slots for their small satel­lite cus­tomers. As more launch com­pa­nies have come on­line, Space­flight has in­creased its part­ner­ships to in­clude some of the smaller rockets, such as the Elec­tron and Vir­gin Or­bit’s LauncherOne, which will air-launch satel­lites from be­neath the wing of a mod­i­fied Boe­ing 747.

“They serve dif­fer­ent niches that our cus­tomers want,” Blake said.

The satel­lite launch bro­ker in­dus­try is not large – an­a­lysts said there are only a hand­ful of play­ers, in­clud­ing Space­flight. Busi­ness has been sta­ble so far, though there is a chance launch com­pa­nies could take those ser­vices in-house, Ostrove said.

“It cer­tainly has a chance of be­ing lu­cra­tive,” he said.

Space­flight’s par­ent com­pany, Space­flight In­dus­tries Inc., has raised more than $200 mil­lion in to­tal cap­i­tal and counts firms such as the late Paul Allen’s Vul­can Cap­i­tal as in­vestors. Space­flight In­dus­tries also has a sub­sidiary, Black­Sky, that pro­vides Earth-imag­ing data to cus­tomers.

In Novem­ber, Space­flight In­dus­tries filed an of­fer­ing of $29.9 mil­lion in debt and other se­cu­ri­ties. The com­pany said $22 mil­lion had al­ready been sold, ac­cord­ing to a fil­ing with the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion.

Blake said he sees Space­flight’s fu­ture in pro­vid­ing even more flex­i­bil­ity in launch ser­vices and tim­ing. The com­pany now al­lows cus­tomers to move be­tween rocket launches, but charges a change fee.

“It re­ally be­comes more like an air­line model,” he said.

The launch is sched­uled to oc­cur at 10:32 a.m. Pa­cific from Van­den­berg Air Force Base near Lom­poc, Calif. This will mark the first time SpaceX uses a first-stage booster that has flown twice be­fore. If suc­cess­ful, it will be SpaceX’s 19th launch of the year, mark­ing its high­est an­nual launch to­tal yet.

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