WASHINGTON — A Seattle company that arranges launches of small satellites as secondary payloads had acquired a SpaceX Falcon 9 for its first dedicated launch in 2017, the company announced Sept. 30.
Spaceflight Industries said it will fly more than 20 satellites to sun-synchronous orbits on a mission called “2017 Sun Synch Express” scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in the second half of 2017. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the current list price of a Falcon 9, posted on SpaceX’s web site, is $61.2 million.
Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight’s launch services business, said in an interview that about 80 percent of the capacity on that mission is already booked. He declined to identify specific customers, but said they included a mix of government and commercial customers from the United States and other nations. Most of the spacecraft booked for launch weigh between 50 and 600 kilograms, he said.
Buying a dedicated launch, rather that seeking excess capacity on other launches, provides Spaceflight with more than just additional payload capacity. Secondary or “rideshare” payloads are subject to the schedule of the primary capability, and can be bumped off the launch if the mass of the primary payload grows. With a dedicated mission, Spaceflight is in greater control.
“It helps us establish a regular cadence of launches,” Blake said. “We can book all kinds of rideshare passengers onto something that is going to be there at a certain time to a certain orbit.”
The 2017 mission will include two payloads that will serve as “co-leads” of the overall launch. “Together they get schedule control over the mission,” he said, allowing them to delay the launch if one of them is behind schedule.
Blake said the company is planning to fly dedicated missions to low Earth orbit on an annual basis, and is also considering similar dedicated launches to geostationary transfer orbit. The latter, he said, could take advantage of advances in electric propulsion technology. “We’re working on a mission that looks pretty likely to occur,” he said of the proposed GTO mission.
Even with the additional of dedicated launches, Spaceflight will continue to broker launches of secondary payloads. The company works with a number of launch providers around the world to arrange such launches. That included, Blake said, four cubesats developed by San Francisco-based Spire that launched Sept. 28 as secondary payloads on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.
Those rideshare missions provide more launch opportunities for small satellites, and also reduce the risks of schedule delays or launch failures. “That really diversifies out your launch risk, and is a pretty good strategy for protecting against launch vehicle difficulties,” Blake said.
Spaceflight is planning the largest secondary payload mission ever, deploying 87 satellites on a custom-designed payload adapter called Sherpa. That mission, flying as a secondary payload on another Falcon 9, is now scheduled to launch from Vandenberg in the first quarter of 2016, Blake said.