SpaceX launches third dedicated smallsat rideshare mission
Updated Jan. 14 to correct number of Kepler satellites on the launch.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 placed more than 100 smallsats into orbit Jan. 13 as the company accelerates the pace of its dedicated rideshare missions.
The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 10:25 a.m. Eastern. The upper stage reached orbit eight and a half minutes later and, after a second burn 55 minutes after liftoff, deployed its payloads into a 525-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit over the following half-hour.
The Falcon 9 first stage landed at the company’s Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral, the first land landing of a Falcon 9 booster since the Transporter-2 rideshare mission in June 2021. The booster was on its tenth flight, having first launched in May 2020 on the Demo-2 commercial crew mission for NASA. It subsequently launched the ANASIS-2 satellite, CRS-21 cargo mission, Transporter-1 and five Starlink missions before Transporter-3.
SpaceX said the launch carried 105 spacecraft. The largest single customer, in terms of number of spacecraft, was Earth observation company Planet, which flew 44 SuperDove spacecraft.
Planet was one of many companies using the launch to replenish or augment their constellations. Spire had four Lemur multipurpose satellites on Transporter-3, while Kepler had four satellites for its connectivity constellation. Synthetic aperture radar companies Capella Space, Iceye and Umbra each had spacecraft on the launch as well.
Unseenlabs, a French company developing a satellite system for maritime domain awareness, launched its fifth satellite, BRO-5, on Transporter-3. “The deployment of BRO-5 enables us to strengthen our international activities,” Clément Galic, chief executive of Unseenlabs, said in a statement.
There were newcomers as well. OroraTech, a German startup, launched the first in a series of cubesats equipped with thermal infrared camera intended to provide early warnings of wildfires. The company developed the satellite in cooperation with Spire.
“With the current demonstration mission, OroraTech wants to prove that the technology is suitable for use in space,” said Wolfgang Neubert of APEX Ventures, an investor in OroraTech, in a company statement. “The first data will show what will be possible in the future and pave the way to improved coverage and more accurate predictions.”
The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) flew a three-unit cubesat on Transporter-3, which it claims is the first nanosatellite launched by a utility. DEWA-SAT 1 will be used for internet-of-things applications for its electrical and water systems.
DEWA-SAT 1 was one of three satellites on Transporter-3 built by NanoAvionics. A second was HYPSO-1, a six-unit cubesat for the Norwegian University of Science and Technology for ocean science studies. The third was ETV-A1, a 16-unit cubesat built for Sen, a company that plans to provide ultra-high-definition video from space. ETV-A1 weighed more than 29 kilograms, making it the heaviest satellite launched to date by NanoAvionics.
Many of the satellites on the launch were arranged by aggregators such as D-Orbit, Exolaunch and Spaceflight, including an ION Satellite Carrier by D-Orbit that will later release its payloads. Spaceflight had planned to fly a Sherpa tug on Transporter-3 but was forced to remove it from the mission after its chemical propulsion system developed a leak during launch processing.
One of the 10 satellites on that Sherpa, VZLUSAT-2 by the Czech research center VZLU, was flown by D-Orbit instead. Three satellites from Umbra and an unnamed customer — thought to be Capella Space — also remained on Transporter-3. Spaceflight spokesperson Jodi Sorensen said she believed most of the other payloads originally set to launch on Transporter-3 had been remanifested on other launches.
The Transporter-3 mission followed two previous dedicated rideshare missions in January and June 2021. The company has also flown some satellites as secondary payloads on Starlink launches. The low cost SpaceX offers for rideshare payloads has turned those missions into major competition for the growing number of small launch vehicle developers that offer greater control over orbit and schedule, but at significantly higher prices.
SpaceX is planning up to three more dedicated rideshare launches this year. Kleos, a Luxembourg-based company developing a constellation of radio-frequency monitoring satellites, said Jan. 13 that it will launch its next cluster of smallsats on SpaceX’s next dedicated rideshare mission, Transporter-4, in April. Kleos had planned to launch those satellites on Transporter-3 through Spaceflight.