SkySats in orbit
Illustration of four SkySats, built by Space Systems Loral for Terra Bella. Spaceflight Industries will launch multiple satellites for Terra Bella on a dedicated rideshare mission slated for launch in late 2017. Credit: Space Systems Loral

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Spaceflight Industries will launch multiple imaging satellites for Google-owned Terra Bella in 2017 as part of a “dedicated rideshare” Falcon 9 mission Spaceflight purchased from SpaceX last year.

Spaceflight said Oct. 11 that Terra Bella will be the “co-lead” on that mission, designated SSO-A, scheduled for late 2017 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Spaceflight has signed up more than 20 payloads from various other customers that will launch on that flight.

In an Oct. 11 interview, Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight, said he couldn’t provide the number of Terra Bella satellites that will fly on the mission, at the request of the company, other than “it’s more than one.”

Terra Bella, previously known as Skybox Imaging, announced a contract with Space Systems Loral in 2014 to build 13 SkySat satellites to provide high-resolution Earth images. One of those satellites launched in June as a secondary payload on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, and four more launched on an Arianespace Vega mission Sept. 15. Terra Bella has a contract with Orbital ATK for the launch of six SkySat spacecraft on a Minotaur-C in 2017.

While the announcement said that Terra Bella will be a “co-lead” on the SSO-A mission, Blake said that the company will be the only customer with that designation on the mission, giving it more control over the launch schedule. SpaceIL, an Israeli group competing in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, had previously been named a primary payload for the flight, but Blake said their lunar lander will fly on another, unnamed launch.

Spaceflight has sold about 90 percent of the capacity on the SSO-A mission, as measured by the number of slots available for spacecraft. The other customers include U.S. government, international government and commercial customers. Blake said commercial and international customers account for about three-quarters of the payloads on the mission.

The SSO-A launch is scheduled for late 2017, and Blake said he does not expect the stand-down in Falcon 9 launches since a Sept. 1 pad explosion at Cape Canaveral to result in a significant delay. “The timing on the mission shouldn’t be an issue,” he said, based on discussions Spaceflight has had with SpaceX.

Spaceflight is also a customer on another Falcon 9 mission, flying a secondary payload called SHERPA that carries 89 small satellites. That mission was scheduled to launch this fall. “We’re waiting for the return to flight,” he said, expecting the launch to be rescheduled for no earlier than January. Spaceflight is holding off integrating those satellites on the SHERPA bus until it has a firmer launch date.

Given the success selling payload space on the SSO-A mission, Blake said he expects Spaceflight to do similar dedicated rideshare missions in the future on an annual basis. “Our relationship with SpaceX is really good,” he said, when asked if those future missions would also use a Falcon 9. “We’re definitely looking at the Falcon, but we’re also open to everybody, U.S. and non-U.S.”

Spaceflight will also continue to sell secondary payload accommodations on other launches. “There’s definitively a lot of demand, both in the U.S. and abroad,” he said. “Doing one dedicated mission a year doesn’t satisfy that demand. People have different orbits and timelines. The rideshare missions are a great supplement to the dedicated missions.”

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...