Spaceflight’s 64-satellite extravaganza inches closer to SpaceX launch

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket
A twice-flown SpaceX Falcon booster is readied for its third mission, set for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Scorch marks give the first-stage booster a “sooty” appearance. (SpaceX Photo via Twitter)

Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries is closing in on what’s shaping up as a grand convergence in commercial space.

Spaceflight, which handles launch logistics for small satellites, is nearly ready for its most ambitious mission yet: the “dedicated rideshare” launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will deliver 64 satellites to a pole-to-pole, sun-synchronous orbit.

The SSO-A mission, also known as the SmallSat Express, is due to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Monday, with SpaceX providing a webcast. The launch has been postponed several times, most recently late Saturday, due to the need for additional inspections and concerns about high-altitude winds at the launch site.

Among the dozens of payloads on SSO-A will be Global-2, a satellite designed for what’s expected to be a constellation of Earth-watching spacecraft for BlackSky, Spaceflight Industries’ other subsidiary.

BlackSky had its first Global-class satellite, known as Global-1, launched last week aboard an Indian PSLV rocket. It’s also been operating a prototype satellite, Pathfinder-1, for more than two years — and is marketing multispectral imagery from a squadron of other companies’ satellites as well. But the growth of BlackSky’s Global constellation will kick things up a notch in terms of image resolution as well as near-real-time delivery of on-demand imagery.

This mission is also a milestone for SpaceX. The upgraded Block 5 first-stage booster destined for the launch has flown twice already, in May and August, so this will mark the first three-time booster flight (with a launch from each of SpaceX’s three operational launch pads). SmallSat Express’ liftoff will also break SpaceX’s record of 18 launches in a calendar year — a record set just last year.

If all goes as planned, the first-stage booster will go through a complex set of post-separation maneuvers to touch down on SpaceX’s West Coast landing ship.

SSO-A breakdown
SSO-A breakdown

Spaceflight’s in-flight choreography promises to be as complex as SpaceX’s. Once the second stage reaches orbit, a flurry of satellites will be sent out from the base of the payload stack and from two free-flying satellite deployers. The lead payloads are two Planet SkySat Earth-observing satellites that are about the size of a mini-fridge and weigh about 250 pounds, but other satellites are as small as tissue boxes.

In addition to the SkySat spacecraft and the BlackSky Global satellite, here are a dozen other notable payloads:

The course to the SmallSat Express’ launch has not always run smooth. Spaceflight struck its dedicated-rideshare deal with SpaceX more than three years ago, but setbacks in the launch schedule have forced significant satellite shuffles.

Spaceflight’s president, Curt Blake, said his team started charging “change fees” for customers who needed to switch from one launch vehicle to another due to schedule pressures.

Some of those change fees have helped subsidize the cost for other satellite operators who filled open spots on the satellite deployers. It’s similar to the way airlines and discount-travel websites like Priceline offer last-minute deals to fill empty seats on passenger airplanes.

“We’ve changed to a system that’s a lot more like airlines, frankly” Blake told GeekWire. “We’re toying with the idea of flex fares, all that kind of thing.”

Another issue has to do with the way Spaceflight plans to deploy all those satellites from free-flying spacecraft. Inside Outer Space quoted an expert on orbital debris, CelesTrak’s T.S. Kelso, as saying Spaceflight’s method seemed “irresponsible.”

“It jeopardizes the time and resources of many of the small operators who may never even hear from their satellites,” Kelso said.

Is filling up a SpaceX Falcon 9 flight worth all worth the trouble, especially when Spaceflight has smaller rockets such as India’s PSLV and Rocket Lab’s Electron to choose from?

It’s a gnarly question, even for Blake. In a commentary recently written for SatMagazine, he said putting together the SmallSat Express mission was “an incredibly complex undertaking” and suggested “it is more likely that small- and medium-sized launch vehicles will become the vehicles of choice for future dedicated rideshare missions.”

But in our follow-up interview, Blake laid out a more nuanced view: To his mind, the Falcon 9 is like a bus, while the smaller Electron is like a taxi.

“If a lot of people want to go from Kirkland to downtown Seattle [and] they all want to go at 7:30 in the morning so they can get to work, the bus is a great solution to that. If you want to go somewhere at a time when not everybody wants to go, or if you want to go someplace that not many people want to go to … then you’re better off going in a taxi,” he said.

In a similar way, the Falcon 9 makes sense for a busload of satellite operators who are all willing to send their spacecraft to sun-synchronous orbit at the same time. But satellite operators who are facing time constraints or have special needs would be better off paying the higher per-kilogram cost for an Electron launch, Blake said.

In either case, Spaceflight can arrange the ride. “We do rideshare on all the different vehicles,” Blake said.

BlackSky is something a special case, due to its status as Spaceflight’s corporate sibling under the broader aegis of Spaceflight Industries. “We know more about them,” Blake acknowledged. But he said BlackSky doesn’t get special treatment.

“We treat them as much as we can like any other customer,” Blake said.

BlackSky Global-2’s launch comes just a few days after Global-1’s successful ride to orbit on India’s 31-satellite PSLV-C43 mission.

“We’re learning more from Global-1 with each pass it makes, and we’re now we’re moving into our next phase of satellite operations and are monitoring it closely from our Mission Operations Center in Seattle,” BlackSky said in post-launch update. “We’re looking forward to having Global-2 join it on orbit.”

Global-3 and Global-4 are due to take flight early next year, on another Indian PSLV and an Electron. Twenty more satellites are expected to follow in the next year or two, filling out the Phase 1 constellation and setting the stage for still more to come.

Last week BlackSky announced that it’s one of Amazon’s partners in a new cloud-based satellite data management platform called Amazon Ground Station. BlackSky also has developed its own cloud-based constellation orchestration system, called Gemini, to automate many of the tasks required to manage what will become more than a score of satellites.

In a description of the Gemini system, written for BlackSky’s website, software development manager Casey Peel said he and his teammates were ready for the next chapter of their own satellite saga.

“We’re excited to put Gemini to work when the rubber meets the road,” Peel wrote.

This is an updated version of a report first published at 10 a.m. PT Nov. 17.

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