Spaceflight purchases first commercial flight of new Indian small launcher

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Updated 11:20 a.m. Eastern.

LOGAN, Utah — Spaceflight announced Aug. 6 that it will purchase the first commercial launch a new Indian vehicle scheduled to make its debut later this year.

Spaceflight said it will launch payloads for an undisclosed U.S. satellite constellation customer on a flight of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), a derivative of the existing, larger Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The launch is scheduled for later this year and will be the second for the SSLV after a demonstration launch expected no earlier than September.

While the companies didn’t announce the customer for the mission, a July 25 filing with the Federal Communications Commission by Earth imaging company BlackSky Global sought a license for four of its satellites it said would launch on the SSLV in November 2019. The applications said the satellites would be deployed into two orbital planes, consistent with Spaceflight’s announcement.

Spaceflight, which provides rideshare services on a wide range of launch vehicles, believes the SSLV will be an ideal fit for many of its customers based on the vehicle’s performance and its cost.

“I think its hugely exciting because it’s an attractive price point and, for us, it’s a really good size,” said Curt Blake, president and chief executive of Spaceflight, in an interview during the Conference on Small Satellites here. “And there is a shortage of launch capacity right now, especially to sun-synchronous orbit.”

SSLV will be able to carry up to 500 kilograms to mid-inclination low Earth orbits and 300 kilograms to SSO. While the company didn’t disclose pricing, Blake said the price is “a little bit better” than rideshares on PSLV. “In terms of small launch vehicles, it’s much better than what’s out there,” he added.

That price, he said, is low enough that Spaceflight can afford to purchase several vehicles at a time, meeting needs of customers that need to go to specific orbits. NewSpace India Ltd., the Indian venture that is marketing the SSLV to Spaceflight and other customers, is “flexible and accommodating to work with,” he noted. “It’s going to be a huge boon for the industry.”

Spaceflight has flown more than 100 satellites on several previous PSLV launches, and said that even with the introduction of SSLV he anticipated more rideshare missions on that larger rocket. “Launch is such a scarce resource that not optimizing to bring your costs down by utilizing every bit of capacity there is is kind of wrong,” he said.

Spaceflight is using a wide range of launch vehicles to meet the growing demand for dedicated and rideshare smallsat services. The company flew seven smallsats on the previous Rocket Lab Electron launch June 29, and will fly three satellites on the next Electron launch, scheduled for Aug. 16.

The company also has payloads on the first Small Satellite Mission Service flight of the Vega small launch vehicle, which will carry 42 satellites overall. That launch was scheduled for September but will likely be postponed because of the ongoing investigation into the July 10 failure of a Vega rocket carrying an imaging satellite for the United Arab Emirates.

Blake said he was awaiting to hear the outcome of the investigation and plans for return to flight, but that none of his customers had yet asked to be moved off the flight. Arianespace officials at the conference said Aug. 5 that they had no updates on the status of the Vega, as the board of inquiry convened to investigate the failure was still at work.

Spaceflight is also looking for other options, including new small launch vehicles, to meet demand. “We just need more small launch vehicles out there,” he said.

Caleb Henry contributed to this article from Washington.