Space solar power experiment, 36 Planet imaging satellites on SpaceX rideshare mission

Launcher’s Orbiter SN1 transfer vehicle hosts multiple payloads on SpaceX’s Transporter 6 mission. Credit: Launcher / John Kraus

The 114 small satellites set for launch Tuesday on SpaceX’s first mission of the year include 36 spacecraft for Planet’s commercial remote sensing fleet, a space-based solar power experiment, and space tugs to piggyback payloads into different orbits.

SpaceX’s Transporter 6 mission will be the company’s sixth dedicated small satellite rideshare launch, and is the first of up to 100 rocket flights on SpaceX’s schedule in 2023. The payloads aboard the mission range in size from a soda can to a laundry machine.

Liftoff is set for 9:56 a.m. EST (1456 GMT) Tuesday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. A 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket will head south from Florida’s Space Coast, powered by nine Merlin kerosene-fueled Merlin engines generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust, targeting a polar sun-synchronous orbit some 326 miles (525 kilometers) above Earth.

The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket will detach and return to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral about eight-and-a-half minutes after launch. The rocket is set to make its 15th flight into space, tying a record set last month for the most-flown Falcon 9 booster.

Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s upper stage will fire its single Merlin engine two times to place the 114 small satellites into orbit. The payload deployments will begin at T+plus 58 minutes and 24 seconds and conclude at T+plus 1 hour and 31 minutes.

There’s high demand for SpaceX’s rideshare launch service. Several SpaceX customers have said the price for a slot on a Transporter mission is unmatched in the launch industry.

On its website, SpaceX says it charges customers $1.2 million to launch a payload of 440 pounds (200 kilograms) on a dedicated rideshare flight to sun-synchronous orbit. The price is enabled by cost reductions from reusing Falcon 9 rocket hardware. SpaceX has blamed inflation for hiking the price for a 440-pound payload slot from $1 million.

Broker companies like Berlin-based Exolaunch, the Italian launch broker D-Orbit, and ISILaunch reserved ports on the Transporter 6 payload stack, then divided that capacity among multiple small satellite customers.

One of ISILaunch’s customers on Transporter 6 is Planet, the San Francisco-based remote sensing company. Planet says it has 36 SuperDove Earth-imaging satellites, each about the size of a toaster oven, on-board the Transporter 6 mission.

“We’re excited to again work with SpaceX to bring 36 SuperDoves to orbit, our eighth overall launch with the launch provider,” said Mike Safyan, Planet’s vice president of launch. “Once in orbit, these satellites will join our current fleet and work to deliver cutting-edge geospatial solutions to our global customer base.”

The new satellites will replenish Planet’s current fleet of around 200 active satellites, the largest Earth-observing constellation in the world, the company said. The SuperDove satellites each have optical cameras with sensors in eight spectral bands, supplying remote sensing data to commercial customers, the U.S. government’s intelligence agencies, and environmental monitoring groups.

Five of the SuperDove satellites are adorned with laser-etched artwork and quotes celebrating the legacy of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, according to Planet.

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

The Transporter 6 mission will also deploy a roughly 400-pound (178-kilogram) satellite for EOS Data Analytics, a Silicon Valley startup founded by Max Polyakov, a Ukrainian  entrepreneur and investor. The EOS SAT 1 spacecraft is designed to capture medium to high resolution images of Earth’s surface, with an emphasis on agricultural monitoring. It is one of the largest satellites on the Transporter 6 launch, and was built by Dragonfly Aerospace in South Africa.

There are six commercial space tugs and orbital transfer vehicles on the Transporter 6 mission, each capable of carrying multiple smaller satellites into different orbits for “last-mile” delivery in low Earth orbit.

The space tugs can change their altitude, inclination, or other orbital parameters, hauling small payloads to different locations in space than the drop-off orbit of the main rocket. The transfer vehicles can reposition small satellites into orbits more favorable for their missions.

Some transfer vehicles use conventional propulsion, with thrusters powered by liquid propellants. Others are testing electric thrusters, a lower-thrust but higher-efficiency propulsion option.

Two of the transfer vehicles on the Transporter 6 mission come from the Italian company D-Orbit, which will deploy several nanosatellites into orbit in the weeks after launch. D-Orbit’s two ION satellite carriers will release four small satellites for a data relay and asset tracking constellation owned by the Swiss company Astrocast. One of the ION tugs will also deploy Kelpie, a 9-pound (4-kilogram) CubeSat to provide maritime tracking services for Orbcomm.

Another orbital transfer vehicle developed by a startup named Launcher is also mounted on the Transporter 6 payload stack. Launcher’s Orbiter SN1 space tug is fitted with a ethane/nitrous oxide propulsion system to change its orbital altitude and inclination, and the company says the vehicle is capable of accommodating up to 880 pounds (400 kilograms) of payload mass.

The Orbiter SN1 mission carries deployable satellites for U.S.-based Skyline Celestial, Innova Space of Argentina, Italy’s NPC SpaceMind, Cal Poly Pomona, Stanford University, and an undisclosed customer. The spacecraft also hosts a payload containing cremated human remains for Beyond Burials, and a phased array antenna from CesiumAstro to demonstrate a high-data rate Ka-band communications system that could be used on future small satellites in Earth orbit and at the moon.

An Australian company named Skykraft is also launching a 660-pound (300-kilogram) payload on the Transporter 6 mission. The Skykraft package includes the company’s own orbital transfer vehicle, which will separate from the Falcon 9 rocket and then later deploy four of its own satellites for Skykraft’s planned constellation of 210 spacecraft providing air traffic management services. Skykraft says its satellites will relay real-time communications between air traffic control and pilots flying over remote parts of the ocean.

San Francisco-based Epic Aerospace will also launch its first orbital transfer vehicle, called Chimera LEO 1, on the Transporter 6 mission. Epic Aerospace has not said if its first transfer vehicle will deploy any customer payloads, or if the mission is purely a technology demonstration.

Momentus performed additional testing of its second orbital transfer vehicle after encountering anomalies on the first test mission in 2022. The pre-flight checks included solar array deployment testing. Credit: Momentus

And Momentus’s second orbital space tug, called the Vigoride 5 Orbital Service Vehicle, is set to ride to space Tuesday on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The Vigoride 5 Orbital Service Vehicle, or OSV, follows Momentus’s first space tug demo mission, which launched on SpaceX’s Transporter 5 rideshare mission in May.

The first Momentus demonstration mission ran into trouble soon after separating from the Falcon 9 rocket. The Vigoride 3 transfer vehicle encountered communications issues and failed to open its solar arrays, putting the spacecraft in a power crunch that prevented it from completing all mission objectives. Momentus said the Vigoride 3 space tug eventually released seven of its nine customer satellite payloads.

Momentus hopes to test the Vigoride transfer vehicle’s water-based microwave electrothermal thruster system, a type of propulsion system that provides higher efficiency than conventional rocket fuels, and higher thrust than ion engines.

The Vigoride 5 space tug will deploy a small CubeSat into orbit for Qosmosys, a Singapore-based space venture.

The other payload on the Vigoride 5 space tug comes from Caltech, which is flying hardware that could be used in the future to generate electricity in space and beam the energy back to Earth for use on the ground.

The 110-pound (50-kilogram) Space Solar Power Demonstrator payload will test a scaled-down 6-by-6-foot deployable structure that simulates mechanisms needed to construct a huge power generation station in space. Engineers will also evaluate the performance of 22 types of solar cells to determine which design is most effective, and test microwave power transmitters needed to beam energy back to Earth.

“No matter what happens, this prototype is a major step forward,” said Ali Hajimiri, a professor of electrical engineering at Caltech and co-director of the institution’s Space Solar Power Project. “It works here on Earth, and has passed the rigorous steps required of anything launched into space. There are still many risks, but having gone through the whole process has taught us valuable lessons. We believe the space experiments will provide us with plenty of additional useful information that will guide the project as we continue to move forward.”

A Planet SuperDove with the “Boldly Go Campaign” artwork laser etched onto its side panels to honor the work of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Credit: Planet

The solar power experiment’s deployable structure employs “ultra-thin composite materials to achieve unprecedented packaging efficiency and flexibility,” Caltech said in a press release.

“The entire flexible (microwave) array, as well as its core wireless power transfer electronic chips and transmitting elements, have been designed from scratch,” Hajimiri said. “This wasn’t made from items you can buy because they didn’t even exist. This fundamental rethinking of the system from the ground up is essential to realize scalable solutions for SSPP (Space Solar Power Project).”

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is also loaded with three radar remote sensing microsatellites for the Finnish company ICEYE, and two similar radar imaging satellites for Umbra, a startup based in Santa Barbara, California.

There are four optical Earth observation microsatellites on-board for Satellogic, a remote sensing company headquartered in Uruguay. Two of them will be primarily used to survey Albanian territory through an agreement between Satellogic and the Albanian government.

The Transporter 6 mission will also deploy two 132-pound (60-kilogram) spacecraft for Lynk Global, a Virginia-based company developing technology to connect consumer-grade mobile phones through satellites. A satellite called YAM 5 — Yet Another Mission 5 — from Loft Orbital is also aboard the Falcon 9 rocket. YAM 5 is a “condosat” hosting several customer tech demo payloads, including a flight computer, an infrared camera, and telecom systems.

One of Planet’s Dove satellites captured this image of lava flows from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano in December. Credit: Planet

A U.S. Space Force weather mission on the Transporter 6 launch will test a prototype cloud imaging instrument called the Rapid Revisit Optical Cloud Imager, or RROCI. The Space Force instrument is hosted on a small satellite developed by Orion Space Solutions.

Two military satellites from Norway and the Netherlands will work in tandem to demonstrate the military use of a microsatellite spectrum monitoring system to detect and geolocate radar emissions.

A satellite named Sternula 1, owned by the Danish company Sternula, will test a VHF communications system for maritime communications. A briefcase-size spacecraft named NSLSat 2 will be the second satellite launched for the Israeli company NSLComm, which is developing a constellation of smallsats for high-throughput communications.

The Transporter 6 mission will launch four new satellites for Kleos Space of Luxembourg, which operates a fleet of spacecraft to detect and geolocate radio frequency transmissions, providing intelligence on maritime activity for governments and commercial customers. Another small satellite called STAR VIBE from Scanway Space, a Polish company, will validate the performance of two optical payloads, one for Earth observation and another for satellite self-inspection.

Other CubeSat payloads on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket include the BRO-8 satellite for the French maritime surveillance company Unseenlabs, the Menut Earth observation spacecraft from the Spanish company Open Cosmos, the Guardian Alpha tech demo satellite for the UK company OrbAstro, and the Connecta T1.2 testbed for the Turkish internet of things company Plan-S.

A satellite named Platform 2 from the Bulgarian firm EnduroSat is also on-board. It is another “condosat” mission to support testing of several customer payloads, including plasma and arc-based thrusters from Magdrive and Hypernova.

The EOS SAT 1 spacecraft, owned by EOS Data Analytics, is one of the largest satellites on the Transporter 6 mission. Credit: Dragonfly Aerospace

A French CubeSat called Gama Alpha will unfurl a 789-square-foot (73.3-square-meter) solar sail in low Earth orbit and attempt to harness light energy from the sun as a means of propulsion. Sony’s Star Sphere CubeSat carries a full-frame camera with a 28-135 mm lens. Sony says selected artists and space enthusiasts will be able to command the camera to take pictures of Earth, sunrises and sunsets, the moon and stars.

There are also six CubeSats on the Transporter 6 mission for Spire Global’s constellation satellites for ship tracking and weather data collection, plus 12 tiny “picosats” for Swarm Technologies, a company owned by SpaceX. Swarm is developing a low-data-rate satellite communications system. Each of the Swarm satellites is about the size of a slice of bread.

The Transporter 6 launch will also place into orbit a small CubeSat from Ukraine to test thermal control technology, Kuwait’s first satellite mission, and an amateur radio CubeSat from the Czech Republic.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.