SpaceX rocket hauls 88 small satellites into polar orbit

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to begin the Transporter 2 rideshare mission. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket and 88 small satellites from Cape Canaveral Wednesday, sending the rideshare payloads on a southerly track into a polar orbit and notching the eighth successful flight of a reusable booster that debuted exactly one year ago.

Running a day late after a helicopter ventured into restricted airspace just before launch time Tuesday, the Falcon 9 rocket lit its nine Merlin main engines and climbed through a cloudy sky over Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, at 3:31 p.m. EDT (1931 GMT).

SpaceX held the rocket on the ground for 35 minutes Wednesday to wait for an opening in the weather at Cape Canaveral. Scattered rain showers and storms swept across the spaceport throughout the day.

But conditions were “go” for launch at 3:31 p.m., and the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket soared through the atmosphere with 1.7 million pounds of thrust from its main engines.

Heading southeast, then turning south, the rocket followed a trajectory hugging Florida’s east coast to guide its 88 payloads into a polar sun-synchronous orbit on SpaceX’s Transporter 2 small satellite rideshare mission.

The first stage of the rocket shut down its engines and separated from the Falcon 9’s upper stage about two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. The booster reversed course using a short burn with three of its engines, steering itself back to Cape Canaveral for a vertical landing about eight-and-a-half minutes into the mission.

A powerful double sonic boom accompanied the rocket’s propulsive touchdown on the concrete pad at Landing Zone 1, a few miles south of the mission’s departure point at launch pad 40.

It was the 20th landing of a Falcon booster at Cape Canaveral, and the 89th successful recovery of a Falcon rocket overall, including landings on offshore drone ships and at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.

The booster on Wednesday’s mission, numbered B1060, completed its eighth trip to space and back with the on-target return to Landing Zone 1. The eighth flight occurred one year to the day after the rocket’s debut launch June 30, 2020, with a GPS navigation satellite.

Just as the booster settled on its four landing legs at Cape Canaveral, the Falcon 9’s upper stage shut down its single Merlin engine to reach a preliminary orbit around Earth after streaking over South Florida, Cuba, the Caribbean Sea, and Central America.

After flying over Antarctica and heading back north over the Indian Ocean, the second stage reignited its engine for a brief maneuver to reach a near-circular polar orbit at an altitude of nearly 341 miles, or 550 kilometers.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster fires its center engine for a landing burn just before touching down at Landing Zone 1 Wednesday. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

The rocket then began a 30-minute sequence to release its satellite payloads, including three space tugs that will perform their own maneuvers to deploy 41 spacecraft in the coming days and weeks.

The payloads released directly from the Falcon 9 rocket included Earth observation satellites for several commercial operators, including four satellites for ICEYE’s radar remote sensing fleet and four spacecraft for Satellogic’s optical Earth-imaging network.

The first satellite for Umbra, a startup based in Santa Barbara, California, also launched on the Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday. Capella Space, another radar remote sensing company, also had a small spacecraft on Wednesday’s launch.

Loft Orbital, a small company headquartered in San Francisco, launched two microsatellites named Yet Another Mission 2 and 3, or YAM 2 and YAM 3. Loft Orbital sells capacity on its satellites for payload providers, such as commercial companies, research institutions, or the military, to test out sensors, instruments, and technology.

Other companies with payloads on Wednesday’s launch included Swarm Technologies, a Silicon Valley company that is developing a low-data-rate satellite communications fleet. Swarm said it had 28 tiny SpaceBEE satellites, each about the size of a slice of bread, on the Falcon 9 rocket.

Spire Global, NanoAvionics, Technical University of Berlin, Tyvak, and PlanetiQ also had small satellites on Wednesday’s mission.

There were two NASA CubeSats on-board, too.

One of the NASA nanosatellites, named PACE 1, was developed by the Ames Research Center in California with a lightweight gamma and neutron particle detector and spectrometer, and optical and radar retro-reflectors to support orbital tracking measurements.

Loft Orbital’s YAM 3 satellite, built by LeoStella in Tukwila, Washington. Credit: Loft Orbital

The other NASA mission launched Wednesday was TROPICS Pathfinder, a validation model for a fleet of six Cubesats scheduled for launch in 2022 to measure weather conditions inside tropical cyclones.

The Space Development Agency launched its first five payloads on the Transporter 2 rideshare mission. The agency was established in 2019 as part of the Department of Defense, with a goal of infusing emerging technology into the U.S. military’s space programs.

The payloads for the SDA were developed in partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and the Air Force Research Laboratory to test laser communication and on-board data processing technologies.

A satellite for the Italian company D-Orbit also deployed from the Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday. The satellite will release six CubeSats in the coming weeks, then begin a mission performing in-orbit demonstrations of three hosted payloads.

The Falcon 9 rocket also placed into orbit two Sherpa space tugs from the Seattle-based company Spaceflight. Combined, they carry six microsatellites, 29 CubeSats, and one hosted payload, representing 14 organizations in seven countries.

One of the Sherpa tugs is the space industry’s first orbital transfer vehicle powered by electric thrusters. The Sherpa LTE1 vehicle has an electric propulsion system supplied by Apollo Fusion of Mountain View, California.

Sherpa LTE1’s efficient Hall thruster, fueled by xenon gas, will perform orbital maneuvers to release multiple smallsats into different orbits.

The final satellites to separate from the Falcon 9 rocket were three of SpaceX’s own Starlink internet satellites.

Here’s a timeline of the spacecraft separation sequence:

  • T+57:50: NASA’s PACE-1 satellite separates
  • T+57:57: Satellogic’s ÑuSat 19 Earth observation satellite separates
  • T+58:04: ICEYE radar observation satellite separates
  • T+58:32: NASA’s TROPICS Pathfinder CubeSat separates
  • T+58:37: PlanetiQ’s GNOMES 2 radio occultation satellite separates
  • T+58:44: Tyvak-0173 nanosatellite separates
  • T+59:47: ICEYE radar observation satellite separates
  • T+1:00:00: Tyvak-0211 nanosatellite separates
  • T+1:00:08: Loft Orbital’s YAM-3 satellite separates
  • T+1:00:18: TU Berlin’s TUBIN microsatellite separates
  • T+1:00:23: Umbra’s first radar observation satellite separates
  • T+1:00:33: D-Orbit’s ION satellite carrier separates with six CubeSats
  • T+1:01:50: Space Development Agency’s LINCS 2 satellite separates
  • T+1:02:16: Satellogic’s ÑuSat 20 Earth observation satellite separates
  • T+1:02:30: Satellogic’s ÑuSat 21 Earth observation satellite separates
  • T+1:02:40: Capella’s Whitney radar observation satellite separates
  • T+1:02:46: ICEYE radar observation satellite separates
  • T+1:04:12: Space Development Agency’s LINCS 1 satellite separates
  • T+1:04:29: DARPA’s Mandrake 2 Able satellite separates
  • T+1:05:33: ICEYE radar observation satellite separates
  • T+1:06:48: First batch of Swarm SpaceBEE satellites separate
  • T+1:07:10: Second batch of Swarm SpaceBEE satellites separate
  • T+1:07:17: NanoAvionics’ D2/AtlaCom-1 satellite separates
  • T+1:07:24: Spire’s first Lemur 2 CubeSat separates
  • T+1:07:47: Satellogic’s ÑuSat 22 Earth observation satellite separates
  • T+1:07:56: Loft Orbital’s YAM-2 satellite separates
  • T+1:09:51: Spire’s second Lemur 2 CubeSat separates
  • T+1:09:58: DARPA’s Mandrake 2 Baker satellite separates
  • T+1:21:10: Spaceflight’s Sherpa FX2 separates to begin deploying smallsats
  • T+1:21:14: Spaceflight’s Sherpa LTE1 transfer vehicle separates
  • T+1:27:35: Three Starlink satellites separate

SpaceX announced its small satellite rideshare program in 2019, offering three dedicated Transporter missions to sun-synchronous orbit per year. The company also provides opportunities for small satellite operators to launch their spacecraft as secondary payloads on Falcon 9 launches for SpaceX’s Starlink internet network.

The Transporter 1 mission launched in January from Cape Canaveral with 143 satellites, a record number of spacecraft on a single rocket.

The Transporter 3 mission is scheduled for liftoff in December, tentatively from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. It could also launch from Cape Canaveral. SpaceX moved the Transporter 2 mission from California to Florida earlier this year.

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, in an interview earlier this year.

Companies like Exolaunch reserved ports on the Transporter 1 and Transporter 2 payload stacks, then divided that capacity among multiple small satellite customers.

Wednesday’s mission was the 20th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket through the first half of 2021, putting SpaceX on pace for 40 Falcon 9 missions this year.

SpaceX had 26 launches last year, the most in the company’s history. If its near-term launch manifest remains on schedule, SpaceX could reach the 26-launch mark by late August or September.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.