D-Orbit Chief Commercial Officer Renato Panesi (right) and Astrocast CEO Fabien Jordan pop a bottle of champagne after signing a launch agreement Aug. 7 at SmallSat. (Keith Johnson for SpaceNews)

LOGAN, Utah — D-Orbit, an Italian company entering the rideshare market, won a deal to launch 10 Astrocast cubesats on a future Vega mission as it develops an advanced, free-flying deployer.

In a ceremony during the AIAA/Utah State University Conference on Small Satellites here Aug. 7, the two companies signed a contract covering the launch of the 10 Astrocast cubesats as secondary payloads on a Vega rocket in late 2019 or early 2020. The satellites will be deployed into sun-synchronous orbits at an altitude of between 450 and 600 kilometers.

Astrocast is a Swiss company developing a constellation of 64 cubesats that will provide connectivity services for Internet of Things applications. Fabien Jordan, chief executive of Astrocast, said in an interview after the signing ceremony that the company is finalizing the design of its operational satellites, which will differ slightly from two demonstration satellites scheduled to launch on Spaceflight’s SSO-A dedicated rideshare Falcon 9 mission late this year.

“We’re starting to manufacture some parts while working on the design at some levels,” he said. Those satellites will be built in the company’s facilities in Switzerland.

The launch D-Orbit will provide will populate the second of eight orbital planes with eight operational satellites and two on-orbit spares. Jordan said Astrocast has an agreement with an undisclosed provider to launch satellites for the first orbital plane in the third quarter of 2019.

The Astrocast award is the second for D-Orbit’s InOrbit Now rideshare payload service, which won a contract last year with Sky and Space Global to launch an unspecified number of its Pearl cubesats to provide communications services. D-Orbit completed a critical design review with Sky and Space Global in June, with the initial set of satellites scheduled for launch in the first half of 2019.

While D-Orbit will initially use standard cubesat deployers, the company is developing a customized free-flying deployer, called Ion. The vehicle will be able to deploy up to 48U of cubesats, ranging in individual size from 1 to 12U, after it is released from the upper stage of a launch vehicle. Ion is scheduled for its first test flight next June.

A free-flying dispenser with its own propulsion will provide for more accurate and customized deployment of individual cubesats, said Renato Panesi, chief commercial officer of D-Orbit. “Basically, we are able to provide fast dispersion and precision deployment,” he said, allowing cubesats to be phased into their final orbital slots within a few weeks, rather than months.

The Astrocast launch currently plans to use D-Orbit’s standard DPOD dispensers, but Panesi and other D-Orbit officials say that the future Ion carrier will be well-positioned to meet the increasingly sophisticated needs of cubesat developers, who once were satisfied with flying on almost any orbit but now seek specific orbital planes to meet their business needs. 

“This gives the choice to have a dedicated orbit and to have separation and dispersion along the orbit, so a constellation doesn’t need to do a lot of complicated differential drags to get into their orbits,” said D-Orbit’s Stefano Antonetti. “Of course that would be a premium service that would come at a small extra cost, but we see customers ready to pay for such a service.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...