SSO-A Falcon 9 launch
After launching 64 satellites on a dedicated Falcon 9 mission last December, Spaceflight says it plans to take a more flexible approach, launching smaller numbers of satellites at a time on more launches. Credit: SpaceX

COLORADO SPRINGS — After placing more than 60 satellites into orbit on a single Falcon 9 last year, Spaceflight says it will focus on launching smaller numbers of satellites at a time on more launches this year.

The Seattle-based company, best known for arranging launches of small satellites as secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles, purchased a Falcon 9 for a mission called SSO-A SmallSat Express. That dedicated launch, which took place in December from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carried 64 smallsats from a variety of commercial and government customers.

While the mission was a success, the challenge of dealing with so many satellites makes it unlikely Spaceflight will attempt such a large mission again in the near future, said Curt Blake, chief executive of Spaceflight, in an April 9 interview during the 35th Space Symposium here.

“That’s probably the upper limit of what it makes sense to do,” he said. “It’s difficult to get that much of demand and have that all come together on one launch at one point in time.”

The problem, he said, is the “constant churn” of customers who move off the mission because their satellites are not ready while others seek new opportunities for launching their satellites. “It sounds like it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but it actually is pretty complicated technically,” he said of swapping out satellites on a mission like that.

Blake played down one issue some had cited with the launch, the difficulty in tracking all the satellites. “That’s been really successful,” he said, noting that all but four had been tracked down. One of those four, he said, was a cubesat that was not deployed at all because it didn’t get its licensing completed in time.

The bigger issue, he said, was closing the communications loop among the customers, Spaceflight, and the Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC), which handles satellite tracking. The company did coordinate closely with CSpOC prior to the launch, he said, but often didn’t hear from customers about whether they were tracking their own satellites after launch.

Spaceflight’s plans in 2019 involve more launches, but with fewer satellites per launch. The company has 17 missions planned for 2019, of which two have taken place. Those missions involve a mix of rockets, including the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), Vega and Electron. Blake said the pace of those missions will pick up starting in May.

“Getting a smaller number of payloads makes sense because you don’t have as much churn,” he said. “If you’re talking 15 customers, 20 customers, that’s a lot easier.”

Other trends Blake said he’s noticed in the market is that the size of smallsats is increasing.
“There’s no question they’re getting larger,” he said. “Microsats in particular are going from 50 to 80 to 100 [kilograms].” An exception are two major customers, Planet and Spire, who are sticking to their 3U cubesat form factor.

Blake also said the rise of small launch vehicles has not impacted demand for rideshare services. Even on small launch vehicles, he said, there is excess capacity that providers they are willing to sell for secondary payloads.

“There was the thought that launch vehicles are smaller, so there will be a lot of dedicated rides. That’s not really happening,” he said. “You can always add a couple more and pull your launch costs down.”

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...