SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket Sunday from Cape Canaveral with 143 small satellites, a record number of spacecraft on a single mission, giving a boost to startup space companies and stressing the U.S. military’s tracking network charged with sorting out the locations of all objects in orbit.
The 143 small spacecraft, part of SpaceX’s “Transporter-1” rideshare mission, took off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT), a day after thick cloud cover prevented the rocket from leaving Earth.
The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket soared toward the southeast from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, then vectored its thrust to fly on a coast-hugging trajectory toward South Florida, before flying over Cuba, the Caribbean Sea, and Central America.
The unusual trajectory was similar to the track followed by a Falcon 9 launch in August 2020, which was the first launch since the 1960s from Florida’s Space Coast to head into a polar orbit.
The Falcon 9’s reusable first stage booster — flying for the fifth time — landed on SpaceX’s “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Miami nearly 10 minutes after liftoff. SpaceX said it also retrieved the rocket’s payload fairing halves after they parachuted back to Earth in the Atlantic.
The rocket’s second stage powered into orbit with its 143 satellite passengers, flew over Antarctica, then briefly reignited its engine while heading north over the Indian Ocean.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) January 24, 2021
The launch Sunday carried payloads for Planet, Swarm Technologies, Kepler Communications, Spire, Capella Space, ICEYE, NASA, and a host of other customers from 11 countries. The payloads ranged in size from CubeSats to microsatellites weighing several hundred pounds.
The Falcon 9 rocket will also delivered 10 more of SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites into space, the first Starlink craft to head for a polar orbit.
SpaceX aimed to placed the satellites into an orbit roughly 326 miles (525 kilometers) in altitude, with an inclination of 97.5 degrees to the equator. The company confirmed an on-target orbital injection after the second burn of the Falcon 9’s upper stage engine, setting the stage for a carefully-choreographed payload deployment sequence that took more than a half-hour to complete.
The mission Sunday broke the record number of satellites on a single launch, exceeding the 104 spacecraft launched on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in 2017.
Record rideshare launch challenges tracking capabilities, raises questions for regulators
U.S. military radars and optical sensors scattered around the world were ready to detect and track all 143 satellites after separation from the Falcon 9 rocket.
That data will be fed to the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, where sophisticated computers and military personnel will generate datasets, or orbital elements, for each object and add them to the catalog of more than 27,000 human-made objects tracked in orbit.
The Space Force is responsible for maintaining the catalog of artificial space objects, and screening for potential collisions between satellites and space debris, which could generate even more junk in orbit.
“We’re in the business of space domain awareness,” said Lt. Col. Justin Sorice, commander of the 18th Sapce Control Squadron, in an interview with Spaceflight Now last year. “That means we want to understand what’s going on in the domain so that we can be responsible and we can alert owner-operators.
“We’re kind of like the lighthouse,” Sorice said. “We’re not the air traffic controllers, so I can’t tell other owner-operators from either the U.S. or other countries to move their satellites. But what we can do is give them plenty of warning.”
But it could take some time to sort identify each of the 143 satellites, along with debris generated from the Transporter-1 launch.
“Releasing so many objects on the same launch presents a huge challenge for the people that are tasked to track and identify those objects,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning and technical advisor for the Secure World Foundation. “It’s really difficult for them to do that unless they have a lot of advance knowledge about how many payloads there are, when are they going to be deployed, what orbit are they deployed in, how are they going to be deployed? There are a lot of little nuances there that can help, but they have to know that information.”
SpaceX is “generally pretty good” about providing the Space Force with information about the orbits targeted by its missions, Weeden said. That helps radars and optical sensors know when and where to look to detect the new satellites.
“Imagine you’re the 18th Space Control Squadron, and you now see, let’s say, 100 things that are all roughly 10-centimeter cubes?” Weeden said. “How the heck do you know which is which?”
Falcon 9 launches carrying batches of 60 Starlink satellites at a time have become the norm, and SpaceX typically releases its orbital targets and deployment times. The process is more simple for a Starlink launch, where SpaceX owns all the satellites, than for a rideshare mission with numerous customers.
“If the satellite operator knows where it is, and can contact their satellite quickly after launch, this is not a huge problem,” Weeden said. “But if they can’t contact quickly after launch, and then they turn to the military for help in trying to find their satellites so they can talk to it, that’s where it becomes a real problem.”
SpaceX provided predicted orbital information to the space traffic management community before the Transporter-1 mission, but only for satellites and support hardware that would separate directly from the Falcon 9 upper stage, not the payloads riding on carrier vehicles, or space tugs, designed to deploy small satellites hours or days later.
“They’ll be tracking them relatively quickly,” Weeden said. “They won’t have them identified and catalogued for probably days, if not weeks.”
T.S. Kelso, an astrodynamicist who manages AGI’s Center for Space Standards and Innovation, agreed it could take weeks to identify and catalog all the objects from the Transporter-1 mission.
“I do think it is important to get all operators that are capable of independently tracking their satellites to publicly share their data, for the common benefit of all operators in Earth orbit,” Kelso wrote in an email to Spaceflight Now.
“I have been trying to get that message out, but with many new operators who are not familiar with the limitations of current legacy systems, we continue to see operators just assuming that tracking and identifying their satellites is a done deal, or believing that all they need to know is where their satellites are located,” said Kelso, who also runs the website CelesTrak.com.
Although SpaceX provides the space traffic management community with predicted orbital parameters before most of its launches, there’s no requirement for a launch or satellite company to do so.
SpaceX did not publicize the total number of satellites on the Transporter-1 mission until less than 24 hours before the first launch attempt, and the company has not released a comprehensive list of every satellite carried to orbit Sunday.
Many customers disclosed their participation in the Transporter-1 launch well in advance. Others announced they had payloads on the mission just days before liftoff, and some declined to publicly reveal their satellites were on the flight until after it launched.
“Interesting to see the varying amounts of transparency from the many companies involved in the Transporter-1 launch,” tweeted Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer who tracks space activity, shortly after Sunday’s launch. “Some have already tweeted about their successful deployments, and some have not even yet acknowledged that they were on the flight.”
Spaceflight Now was able to create a list of the payloads using regulatory filings, customer disclosures, and other industry sources.
James Russell, principal investigator for NASA’s AIM atmospheric research satellite at Hampton University, said launches of large clusters of satellites can put other spacecraft at risk. Russell said the AIM satellite flies at roughly the same altitude as the Transporter-1 mission’s target orbit.
“It’s an uncalculated collision risk,” Russell told Spaceflight Now “They have not calculated what the collision probability is once they launch the smaller satellites.”
Many of the satellites on the Transporter-1 mission have no way to change their orbit. AIM also carries no propulsion system, so there would be no way to steer clear of a collision, according to Russell.
Russell called for the U.S. government to “create policy” and for Congress to “make laws” setting safety requirements to limit the chances of in-space collisions.
“That doesn’t exist right now,” Russell said. “I think the process for getting this in place is moving, but it’s moving at a snail’s pace.”
The Federal Communications Commission decided last year not to immediately introduce any new major requirements for commercial satellite operators. The FCC discussed requiring commercial satellites above a certain altitude — where they might remain in orbit for decades — to have propulsion to maneuver and deorbit at the end of their missions.
“They did not fundamentally change the actual requirement because they got a huge amount of pushback from industry,” Weeden said. “So all of the serious changes got pushed to another round.”
The FCC licenses all satellites that transmit radio signals, giving it outsized influence over a large swath of the commercial space industry. Other agencies in the federal government’s disjointed space regulatory regime include the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial launches and re-entries, and NOAA in the Department of Commerce, which oversees commercial remote sensing satellites.
The FAA also reviews payloads flying on commercial space launches. Publicly available regulatory filings can give some hints about what payloads are flying in rideshare missions like Transporter-1, but they are often published months in advance of a launch.
In the rideshare launch business, payloads can be added or removed from a mission with little or no public notice.
Sensing explosive growth in the commercial space industry, the Obama administration started re-assessing the government’s regulatory approach to commercial spaceflight nearly a decade ago, but never implemented any significant changes.
The Trump administration issued a space policy directive in 2018 that would transition space traffic management responsibility from the military to the Department of Commerce. The Trump administration also directed the Commerce Department take on a “mission authorization” function, which would review, authorize and supervise commercial space activities that don’t fall under the regulatory authority of the FAA, the FCC, or NOAA.
“That’s not ideal,” Weeden said. “That is, I would say, about as light touch as you can possibly get, but it would at least put someone, a government agency, nominally responsible for looking at this stuff.”
Congress would need to act to give the Commerce Department the mission authorization authority. But that is “probably not going to happen for a while,” Weeden said.
Until then, there is no specific federal agency empowered to look into issues like space debris mitigation or public disclosures about commercial space activity.
“This is why the FCC is involved because right now, since they regulate spectrum, that means they touch just about every single commercial satellite out there,” Weeden said. “So they’re really the only existing entity that already has regulatory authority over all these commercial activities.
“That is why right now they’re the vehicle for regulating these large constellations,” Weeden said. “But they’re probably not the ideal way to do that because they do spectrum. They don’t really do debris mitigation and this other stuff.”
Governments are required to provide the United Nations with basic information about the orbit and purpose of satellites under the Registration Convention. But that information is usually published well after a launch.
Space traffic management experts have also developed radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags that could help identify satellites in orbit. But that, too, has gotten little traction beyond a few technical experiments.
“There’s a lot of interest and support for that from the technical community, but the Trump administration was not wiling to put any kind of requirements on companies like that,” Weeden said. “Unknown if the Biden administration will.”
Without regulatory requirements in place, government agencies urge commercial satellite operators to follow guidelines and “best practices” to avoid generating more space junk.
“But in the end these companies, in this case SpaceX, they’ve got a financial incentive to launch these small satellites, so they have to make their own decisions,” Russell said. “And they’re very, very tight-lipped about what they’re launching because they have individual agreements with different people.
“I think we need to take some action now to step up the process to get regulations in place where not only the private interests but the public interests can be met, and it’ll help everybody.”
SpaceX’s rideshare launch prices are the ‘cheapest to date’
SpaceX announced its small satellite rideshare launch offering in 2019, and Sunday’s launch was the first of a series of Transporter missions set to take off every four months. SpaceX’s next dedicated rideshare launch, Transporter-2, is tentatively scheduled to launch in mid-2021 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
On its website, SpaceX says it charges customers as little as $1 million to launch a payload of 440 pounds (200 kilograms) on a dedicated rideshare flight to sun-synchronous orbit. Enabled by cost reductions from reusing Falcon 9 rocket hardware, the SpaceX prices are significantly less than the rate charged by any other launch provider for a payload of similar mass.
“These launches are very cost-efficient, the cheapest to date,” said Jeanne Medvedeva, vice president of launch services at Berlin-based Exolaunch, a rideshare broker that arranged the launch of 30 of the 143 satellites on the Transporter-1 mission.
Companies like Exolaunch reserved ports on the Transporter-1 payload stack, then divided that capacity among multiple small satellite customers. Spaceflight, based in Seattle, the Italian company D-Orbit, the Dutch small satellite launch broker Innovative Solutions in Space, Houston-based Nanoracks, and Maverick Space Systems of California all booked capacity on the Transporter-1 mission, then divvied their slots among their customers.
“When we launch more than one satellite on each port, we make the price even better for the customer,” Medvedeva said in a pre-launch interview with Spaceflight Now. “SpaceX sells a 200-kilogram port … I know few satellites which are 200 kilograms precisely, so if you are lighter than 200, there is a chance to add other payloads just to share the slot.”
SpaceX’s prices undercut those of small satellite launch companies like Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit. Those launch providers offer rides for payloads into different types of orbits, where the small satellite owner has the choice of altitude and inclination.
The Transporter missions from SpaceX are more akin to a train or bus line than a taxi or an Uber, says Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO. They are cheaper, but don’t always get you exactly where you need to go.
Sun-synchronous orbit, in which satellites fly in a north-south direction around Earth, is a popular destination for Earth observation satellites because it offers regular revisits over imaging targets at the same time of day, allowing the collection of imagery under the same lighting conditions.
SpaceX launched a rideshare mission to sun-synchronous orbit in December 2018 with 64 small satellites on-board. But that mission, named SSO-A, was managed by Spaceflight, which purchased the full capacity of a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX. Spaceflight returned to SpaceX as a customer on the Transporter-1 mission, opting to buy a fraction of the Falcon 9’s overall capacity rather than booking the entire rocket.
Spaceflight’s Sherpa space tug carried 13 of the satellites on the Transporter-1 mission, plus a pair of non-separating hosted payloads. The hosted customers included a pod containing the cremated remains of 104 people, a commercial service provided by Celestis.
The Sherpa-FX vehicle separated from the Falcon 9’s payload stack as a single unit, then commenced a mission scheduled to last several hours to release its 13 satellites.
“Effectively, to SpaceX, we’re just another microsat sitting on their vehicle,” said Ryan Olcott, Spaceflight’s mission manager.
“Spaceflight can come in and do what we’ve always done, fractionalize the cost of launch, and figure out smart ways to bring in hardware and know-how,” Olcott said. The Sherpa system is designed to “get everyone where they want to go a little bit cheaper, and make us a little money in the process,” he said.
The battery-powered Sherpa-FX spacecraft was designed to test out systems for more advanced Sherpa tugs in the future. Spaceflight is developing Sherpa vehicles with propulsion, attitude control systems, and solar panels to ferry small satellites into different orbits than the altitude and inclination targeted by massive rideshare launches like SpaceX’s Transporter missions.
Another space tug from D-Orbit, a company headquartered in Italy, was also deployed on the Transporter-1 mission. Similar in function to Spaceflight’s Sherpa, D-Orbit’s ION SCV Laurentius vehicle carried 20 small satellites for Planet and Swarm.
Exolaunch and Nanoracks deployed their customers’ payloads directly from carriers that remained on-board the Transporter-1 stack. And Maverick Space Systems integrated three small NASA CubeSats into a deployer mounted on the rear of the Falcon 9 rocket’s upper stage, near the Merlin engine.
Transporter-1 payloads begin menagerie of missions
The 143 satellites launched Sunday have missions ranging from communications to Earth observation, scientific research, and technology demonstrations. The payloads come from customers in the United States, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and Turkey.
Planet, a San Francisco-based company, had 48 shoebox-sized SuperDove nanosatellites aboard Sunday’s mission. They join more than 150 other small satellites in Planet’s fleet providing daily remote sensing imagery around the world.
There were 36 tiny SpaceBEE data relay satellites on Sunday’s launch from Swarm Technologies, each weighing less than 2 pounds (1 kilogram). The “BEE” in SpaceBEE stands for Basic Electronic Element.
Swarm, headquartered in Silicon Valley, is developing a low-data-rate satellite communications fleet the company says could be used by connected cars, remote environmental sensors, industrial farming operations, transportation, smart meters, and for text messaging in rural areas outside the range of terrestrial networks.
The company said the 36 SpaceBEEs, each about the size of a slice of bread, doubled the number of satellites in its network.
There were eight nanosatellites launched Sunday for Kepler Communications, a Toronto-based company with plans to field a fleet of 140 small spacecraft for data relay and Internet of Things services. Kepler’s eight “GEN1” nanosatellites were built at the company’s own production facility in Toronto.
Kepler previously launched three prototype nanosatellites and the first two GEN1 satellites in September. The GEN1 satellites, based on a 6U-XL CubeSat bus, are production models with higher power and improved antennas to support Ku-band and narrowband communications capabilities, according to Kepler.
“We’re excited to continue our network deployment in response to the overwhelming global demand for our network capacity. As our network continues to grow, we move closer to recognizing Kepler’s vision of providing connectivity on and off the surface of the Earth,” said Mina Mitry, Kepler’s CEO, in a statement.
Eight Lemur-2 CubeSats from Spire Global were also on the launch. They join Spire’s fleet of smallsats providing aircraft and maritime tracking services, and collecting atmospheric data for use in weather forecasting.
Radar imaging satellites also received a boost Sunday. All are microsatellites weighing up to a couple hundred pounds, bigger than most of the payloads on the Transporter-1 mission.
Three radar remote sensing spacecraft from the Finnish company ICEYE were on the Sunday’s launch. Capella Space, an ICEYE competitor in the United States, launched its second and third radar imaging satellites for commercial use, named Capella 3 and Capella 4.
A Japanese remote sensing company named iQPS launched its second radar surveillance satellite on the Transporter-1 mission.
HawkEye 360, a U.S. company planning a satellite constellation to monitor terrestrial radio signals, said its second cluster of formation-flying spacecraft were on Sunday’s launch. They were to be deployed from Spaceflight’s Sherpa-FX space tug.
“The expansion of our pioneering constellation is the first of several strong steps we have planned to multiply our existing capabilities and explore new possibilities for RF geospatial intelligence,” said John Serafini, HawkEye 360’s CEO. “We are proud to be the leading provider of RF insights to U.S. government, international governments, commercial and humanitarian interests, and we believe our newest deployment, which increases the frequency, quality and quantity of insights we are able to deliver, will be an invaluable resource for our customers.”
The company’s satellites are capable of detecting, characterizing, and locating the source of radio transmissions. Such data are useful in government intelligence-gathering operations.
Astrocast, a Swiss company, had five CubeSats on Sunday’s mission, also on the Sherpa-FX tug. The nanosatellites are the latest in Astrocast’s planned network of 80 small spacecraft to collect and downlink data from weather buoys, wellhead sensors, pollution monitors and other remote stations.
The Transporter-1 rideshare mission also delivered into orbit a small satellite designed to monitor greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. The GHGSat-C2 satellite, also known as “Hugo,” is owned by a startup named GHGSat based in Montreal.
Some missions had to drop off the Transporter-1 mission in final weeks before launch, including a pair of tech demo Mandrake 2 satellites for DARPA, the Pentagon’s research and development agency.
The two 187-pound (85-kilogram) satellites were damaged during launch processing at a SpaceX facility at Cape Canaveral, according to DARPA. The twin Mandrake 2 satellites were designed to test inter-satellite broadband links in orbit.
The first Vigoride space tug developed by the in-space transportation startup Momentus was also removed from the Transporter-1 launch. Momentus said in regulatory filings that the Vigoride mission did not clear an FAA review in time.
The Vigoride space tug was supposed to maneuver into a slightly higher orbit after separating from the Transporter-1 stack, then deploy five small CubeSats for commercial customers. The Vigoride tug and its five satellite ridealongs were all removed from the Transporter-1 mission.
SpaceX responded to the late subtractions by requesting and receiving FCC approval to add 10 more Starlink satellites to the Falcon 9 rocket. The quarter-ton flat-panel satellites are the first Starlinks to launch into a polar orbit, joining more 1,000 other Starlink platforms flying in lower-inclination orbits from previous Falcon 9 flights.
The Starlink network is designed to provide low-latency broadband connectivity. Polar-orbiting satellites will extend the network’s coverage globally.
Here’s a list of all 143 satellites launched on the Transporter-1 mission:
- 48 SuperDove satellites for Planet
- 36 SpaceBEE satellites for Swarm
- 10 Starlink satellites for SpaceX
- 8 GEN1 satellites for Kepler
- 8 Lemur-2 satellites for Spire
- 5 Astrocast satellites
- 3 HawkEye 360 satellites
- 3 ICEYE satellites
- 3 V-R3x satellites for NASA
- 3 ARCE-1 satellites for the University of South Florida
- 2 Capella satellites
- Sherpa-FX space tug for Spaceflight
- D-Orbit’s ION SCV Laurentius space tug
- iQPS-2 for iQPS of Japan
- YUSAT for Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology
- IDEASSAT for Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology
- UVQS-SAT for LATMOS of France
- ASELSAT for ASELSAN of Turkey
- Hiber Four for Hiber of the Netherlands
- SOMP2b for TU Dresden of Germany
- PIXL-1 for DLR of Germany
- Charlie for U.S.-based Aurora Insight
- Hugo for GHGSat of Canada
- PTD-1 for NASA
- Prometheus for Los Alamos National Laboratory
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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.