Starlink stack
A stack of Starlink satellites being prepared for launch. A five percent failure rate for the first set of 60 satellites has heightened concerns that megaconstellations could leave hundreds of dead satellites in long-lived orbits. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — Less than a month after announcing a new effort to provide low-cost launch services for small satellites, SpaceX says it will increase the number of flight opportunities and reduce the prices it offers.

The revamped smallsat rideshare program, the company announced late Aug. 28, will provide launch opportunities at least once per month starting in March 2020, at a cost of $1 million for a 200-kilogram smallsat.

“Earlier this month, SpaceX announced the Smallsat Rideshare Program and received a lot of interest and great feedback from customers,” the company said in a statement. “As such, we have updated the terms of the program and have made the service even more compelling with reduced pricing and increased flight opportunities.”

When SpaceX announced the program Aug. 5, the company was charging $2.25 million for a 150-kilogram smallsat, provided the launch was under contract at least a year in advance. From six to 12 months in advance the price increased to $3 million. A 300-kilogram satellite could launch for $4.5 million if ordered a year in advance or $6 million between six and 12 months in advance.

The original program also offered a limited number of dedicated Falcon 9 launches to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with the first scheduled for between November 2020 and March 2021. Subsequent launches were tentatively scheduled for early 2022 and early 2023.

SpaceX now plans to provide three dedicated SSO launches a year, starting in 2020. In addition, SpaceX will offer additional rideshare services, taking advantage of excess capacity on Falcon 9 launches of Starlink satellites and other, unspecified missions to SSO or other polar orbits.

A schedule posted on SpaceX’s website lists 29 launches from March 2020 through December 2021 that are available for rideshare missions. Seven of the launches are listed as going to SSO, while the rest are labeled as “mid-inclination,” likely for launches where Starlink satellites are the primary payloads. The company adds that it will offer additional launches “in 2022 and beyond.”

SpaceX, which launched 64 smallsats on a dedicated Falcon 9 mission for smallsat aggregator Spaceflight in December 2018, had hinted prior to its early August announcement that it could provide regular launches of smallsats at lower prices than many of the small launch vehicles under development.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris in September 2018 that the company was considering a regular series of dedicated rideshare missions. “Basically the train leaves the station at a specific time,” she said. “That could provide a pretty significant advantage to these microsatellites.”

“We see a growing need for smallsat launch capability,” said Stephanie Bednarek, director of commercial sales at SpaceX, discussing the company’s original smallsat rideshare program during a panel discussion at the Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University Aug. 5. She added that the company would continue to work aggregators and brokers, like Spaceflight, in addition to direct sales.

“Because of the launch capacity that we have and the availability of hardware from our success with reusability, it really enables us to enter this market directly from a business perspective,” she said.

In addition to its expanded rideshare launch program, SpaceX also announced an agreement with in-space transportation company Momentus Aug. 22. Momentus will fly its Vigoride tug on a SpaceX dedicated rideshare mission, allowing satellites with a total mass of up to 250 kilograms to fly to custom orbits after deployment from the Falcon 9. SpaceX identified Momentus as its first customer for a dedicated rideshare mission.

“We are showing that ridesharing from the Falcon 9 will be a game-changer. By ferrying payloads to multiple orbits from a single launch, we multiply the capability of an already very impressive system,” said Mikhail Kokorich, chief executive of Momentus, in the statement announcing the agreement.

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...