Swarm launched satellites on Astra mission

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WASHINGTON — Swarm Technologies was the unidentified customer of an Astra Space launch this month that placed 16 of its tiny satellites into orbit.

The March 15 launch of Astra’s Rocket 3.3 from Kodiak Island, Alaska, carried the OreSat0 cubesat from the Portland State Aerospace Society as well as a payload by NearSpace Launch that remained attached to the rocket’s upper stage as planned. The launch also included payloads from a third, unnamed customer. Neither Astra nor Spaceflight, which arranged for the launch, disclosed the identity of that customer or how many payloads it had on board.

U.S. Space Force tracking data on the Space-Track.org online database listed 20 objects associated with the launch. The large number prompted industry speculation that Swarm was the customer, since it has built and launched dozens of its SpaceBEE satellites that are one-quarter the size of a single-unit cubesat and thus could be easily accommodated on the rocket. Space-Track did not list the names of any of the objects linked to the launch, giving them only letter designations.

In a March 21 email newsletter, Swarm mentioned a recent launch. “We recently launched 16 new VHF satellites into a 5:30 a.m. LTDN orbit, which splits our largest gap between orbital planes in half,” the company stated. LTDN, or local time of descending node, refers to the time when the satellites cross the equator from north to south. The newsletter did not mention when the satellites were launched or by whom.

Sara Spangelo, chief executive of Swarm, confirmed in an interview after a panel session at the Satellite 2022 conference March 22 that her company — acquired by SpaceX in 2021 — was the unidentified customer for the launch. She said she expected the formal identification of the Swarm satellites to show up in Space-Track “within days.”

Swarm plans additional launches to fill in gaps in the constellation and provide more frequent passes. The newsletter referred to “four committed upcoming launches this year.” That will reduce latencies for Swarm’s internet-of-things tracking services to less than one hour, at the 90th percentile, by June. Those latencies will drop to less than 30 minutes for locations poleward of 30 degrees latitude by August.

“We’re excited to keep filling out the constellation, just like we were planning prior to the merger,” Spangelo said. She added that the Astra launch was a one-off event. Future launches would likely be on SpaceX’s Transporter series of Falcon 9 rideshare missions.

Swarm is a rare case of a company acquired by SpaceX. During a separate panel discussion at Satellite 2022 March 22, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said the only other company SpaceX has acquired in its 20-year history was a machine shop several years earlier.

“It was a very interesting company,” she said of Swarm, citing its ability to build out a satellite network despite limited resources. “We were quite interested in how did they do it, how did they pull it together on that kind of budget with that number of people.”

“And the people are great, so that was really what that was about,” she added. “A very like-minded company, albeit much tinier.”