D-Orbit offers in-space transportation services with its ION satellite carrier. Credit: D-Orbit

WASHINGTON — Italian space company D-Orbit will launch its first cubesat deployer in June on an Arianespace Vega, paving the way for an upgraded deployer in December on a SpaceX Falcon 9 capable of in-space maneuvers, a company official said May 21. 

Bruno Carvalho, D-Orbit’s vice president of business development, said the company hopes to launch one of its ION propulsive cubesat deployers every two to three months after proving out the system and lining up customers. 

D-Orbit’s first ION deployer will release into a single orbit 12 Doves for Earth-observation company Planet, Carvalho said by email. The next ION will be bigger, featuring a “very capable propulsion system” that can move satellites to different orbits and altitudes, he said. 

Carvalho, speaking May 21 during a webinar hosted by the Access Space Alliance, a smallsat industry group, said propulsive ION deployers will be able to ferry satellites around in low Earth orbit or carry them up to medium Earth orbit.

D-Orbit’s first ION cubesat deployer undergoing integration onto an Arianespace Vega rocket. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace
D-Orbit’s first ION cubesat deployer undergoing integration onto an Arianespace Vega rocket. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace

Future ION deployers will also have the ability to host payloads, relay communications to the ground, and retrieve satellites to deorbit them, Carvalho said. ION is designed for cubesats from three to 12 units in size. Its name pays homage to D-Orbit’s “InOrbit Now” service, which includes arranging for spacecraft launches, ground control, insurance and other mission details.

Carvalho said D-Orbit has been waiting to launch its first ION deployer since September, but was delayed by the July 2019 failure of a Vega rocket. D-Orbit had a team at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana this March to integrate the 12 Dove satellites, but was forced to return that team to Italy after the French government closed the spaceport in response to the coronavirus pandemic, he said. 

D-Orbit now expects the Vega launch to occur in about three weeks, Carvalho said, where D-Orbit’s ION and Planet’s Doves will be part of Arianespace’s Small Spacecraft Mission Service carrying 52 smallsats to low Earth orbit. 

ION is more expensive than a simple rideshare mission, but customers can recoup their costs by starting revenue-generating services earlier instead of waiting for their satellites to drift to their proper orbital location, Carvalho said. He estimated ION can move a satellite in weeks to its desired altitude and orbital plane. 

D-Orbit will compete with California startup Momentus, which has booked multiple Vigoride shuttles on SpaceX Falcon 9 missions slated for this year and 2021. Momentus counts smallsat startups Swarm, Sen, Alba Orbital and SatRevolution among its customers, which will use Vigoride shuttles to drop off their spacecraft in specific orbits after launcher separation. 

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...