WASHINGTON — SpaceX for years has been a driving force in lowering the cost of launching large satellites to orbit. The rideshare program the company started in August is now also putting downward pressure on the cost of launching small satellites.
“SpaceX is offering pricing that previously wasn’t really seen,” said Mike Safyan, vice president of launch at Planet, an Earth imaging company with more than 150 small satellites in orbit.
Planet announced last week that it will launch six SkySat satellites as rideshare payloads on SpaceX rockets scheduled to launch Starlink broadband satellites. Two sets of three SkySats will ride in separate Starlink missions to low Earth orbit
SpaceX advertises a base price of $1 million for launching up to 200 kilograms and $5,000 extra per kilogram.
The rideshare program is “incredibly competitive,” Safyan told SpaceNews. He called it “one of the more significant programs for the smallsat industry especially because of the pricing, the reliability and the number of orbits.”
Since SpaceX started offering this service there has been “more pressure on other launch providers to offer more competitive pricing,” he said. “We are seeing launch providers starting to get more creative.”
Planet is adding six new SkySats to its existing constellation of 15 to provide mid-latitude coverage. The 53 degree inclination of the Starlink orbit “matches very well with where we wanted to put these SkySats,” Safyan said.
After Falcon 9 drops off the SkySats and the Starlink satellites, Planet’s spacecraft will use their on-board propulsion to boost themselves up to their operational orbit of about 400 kilometers above Earth.
Safyan said the three SkySats in each launch will ride on top of the Starlink satellite stack. The company developed a customized adapter.
Taking advantage of rideshare options requires tradeoffs, said Safyan. “You don’t control the orbit or the schedule” but the cost savings are significant. It’s the equivalent of taking the bus versus an Uber. If there are no buses going to the desired orbit, one option is to pay a higher price for a dedicated launch. Another is to hire space tugs that are now being offered as a service.
“That can get you that last mile while still taking advantage of the bigger rideshare rockets,” said Safyan. “I think we’ll see more of that as years go on.”