Updated Dec. 9 with comments from Lunasonde.
WASHINGTON — Three satellites on a SpaceX Transporter rideshare launch in November failed to deploy, including one from a company that previously stated its satellite was in orbit and operating.
Momentus announced Dec. 5 that three of the five satellites that it flew on the Transporter-9 launch Nov. 11 did not appear to deploy from the Falcon 9’s upper stage. The company used a third-party deployer, rather than its own Vigoride tug, on that mission, and said that it was able to confirm that the Hello Test 1 and 2 satellites from Turkish company Hello Space were released.
“Momentus cannot confirm the deployment of the remaining three satellites for three other customers and based on the results of a detailed investigation undertaken, the company does not believe those satellites were released from the third-party deployer system,” Momentus stated.
The company did not mention in the announcement the names of those three satellites. In previous statements the company identified the satellites as AMAN-1, JINJUSat-1 and Picacho, and a company spokesperson confirmed that manifest Dec. 7.
Picacho was a 1U cubesat developed by Lunasonde, a startup based in Tucson, Arizona. The company planned to use Picacho to demonstrate technology for its plans to map subsurface mineral and groundwater resources using very-low-frequency radio waves.
Lunasonde had indicated that the satellite was in orbit after the launch and operating. In a Dec. 1 article by the Arizona Daily Star, Jeremiah Pate, founder and chief executive of Lunasonde, said the company had received telemetry that confirmed that Picacho had deployed its main antenna, a device like a tape measure nearly four meters long.
“The scary part for us is the deployment of that large antenna, and that intended deployment didn’t happen for a few days,” Pate said in the article, which provided no other details about the status of Picacho.
Pate also said on social media that the satellite was in orbit. “Lunasonde is thrilled that after a flawless launch our Picacho satellite is now in orbit,” he posted on LinkedIn. Neither he nor Lunasonde have provided any other updates about the satellite.
The company did not respond to messages Dec. 7 and 8 asking about the status of Picacho. After the original publication of this article, Pate told SpaceNews that the telemetry that Momentus provided indicated that the door of the deployer containing Picacho opened but that the pusher plate that would eject the satellite did not fully move. “Thus, whether the satellite ultimately did release, and the exact timing of its deployment, remains unconfirmed,” he said.
He said that after launch the company received signals “with modulation characteristics that matched Picacho” that led it to believe that the satellite had deployed and had unfurled its antenna. Momentus first informed the company of the potential deployment problem Nov. 21. “We feel the right thing to do is to assume the satellite is in orbit and it is incumbent upon us to try to locate it.”
If Picacho did not deploy from the Falcon 9 upper stage, as Momentus stated, it would no longer be in orbit. That upper stage performed a deorbit maneuver and reentered about an hour after the last of its 90 payloads were scheduled to be deployed.
Picacho, along with AMAN-1 and JINJUSat-1, are not listed in the Space-Track database maintained by the U.S. Space Force. However, many of the payloads from that launch still lack formal identifications. Pate described the situation as “unprecedented” but many launches that carry large numbers of smallsats include some that are difficult to identify or are never heard from after their planned deployment.
“Momentus appreciates and thanks SpaceX for its work and collaboration in providing information necessary to assist our ongoing investigation into the likely root cause of the issues encountered,” Momentus said in its statement about the apparent deployment failure. “Momentus has also been in regular communication with our customers.”
JINJUSat-1 was developed by South Korean company Contec for Jinju City, Korea Testing Laboratory and Gyeongsang National University. Those organizations have not commented on the loss of the satellite.
AMAN-1 was built by Polish company SatRev for the government of Oman, and the company has not provided updates on status of the satellite. AMAN-1 was built as a replacement for AMAN, also developed by SatRev for Oman. The original AMAN satellite was lost in the LauncherOne failure by Virgin Orbit in January.