SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Ovzon-3 satellite, kicking off launch year at the Cape

The first Falcon 9 rocket to launch from Florida in 2024 lifts off from Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. Image: Michael Cain/Spaceflight Now

The orbital launch year in Florida began in the same way it ended 2023: with the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. On board the workhorse launch vehicle was a communications satellite for Sweden-based Ovzon. Liftoff of the rocket happened at the opening of a ten-minute launch window that began at 6:04 p.m. EST (2304 UTC). It marked the second Falcon 9 flight in less than 24 hours, following the launch of 21 Starlink satellites from California late Tuesday.

The mission sent the Ovzon-3 satellite to geostationary orbit, marking the first, privately-funded Swedish satellite launched.

Spaceflight Now will have live coverage with commentary from the Cape beginning about an hour before liftoff.

“Sweden has a strong history with the satellite area, but this is a first for Sweden and I think that’s something we’re very proud of,” said Kristofer Alm, the Chief Marketing Officer for Ovzon. “And I think that Sweden is a very strong based to continue our development.”

Following liftoff on Wednesday, the satellite will spend the next three months reaching its orbital slot of 59.7 East. Once it gets there, Ovzon will begin its full testing campaign. The plan is that by mid-2024, the satellite will be full operational.

“The good thing is we’re not finished then. We’re going to keep adding capabilities,” Alm said. “Obviously, some of those capabilities will be customer-driven, some that we will do because it’s on our roadmap.”

At its core, the Ovzon-3 satellite is designed for critical missions with so-called near-peer capabilities. Alm said the idea is for the satellite to be operable without being reliant on the ground segment of the architecture, helping it be resistant to jamming or other intrusive operations.

A rendering of the Ovzon-3 satellite once it’s on orbit. Graphic: Ovzon

The satellite features five steerable spot beams that allow it to adjust where it is delivering the greatest user capacity and will function with Ovzon’s suite of satellite terminals.

“Defense is our main target market. Defense is where we’ve been most successful, but we’ve started to broaden. We have national security, public safety,” Alm said. “So we’re doing like fire and rescue services in Italy and other parts of Europe where they need mobile terminals, robust terminals. They need a service that can be quickly activated.”

“And that’s another part of our advantage, that we have the full-service chain. So, we can activate and deploy a network in basically 24 hours,” Alm added.

Meeting an evolving challenge

Ovzon was founded in 2006 to offer a service of leasing on-orbit capacity through the use of its on-the-ground terminals. One of the company’s main customers historically has been the U.S. Department of Defense.

Alm said as the years went on, Ovzon leaders decided that having their own satellite was important to expand their capabilities and offer a new service for government customers within the European market.

“We’ve always been a Swedish company with a U.S. customer base and now we’re a Swedish company with a U.S. and a European customer base and I think that’s really exciting,” Alm said.

An Ovzon T7 terminal displayed next to a vehicle tire. Ovzon said the terminals will roll out in coordination with the Ovzon-3 satellite service beginning later this year. Image: Ovzon

Alm pointed to the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine as a moment of evolution in regards of the global community having a greater appreciation for having resident critical communications. He said the market is now more ready for this type of service than it was even just two years ago.

“One thing that happened when the Russians went into Ukraine was they jammed satellite communications. And how did they do that? Well, they knocked out the ground segment,” Alm said. “Our satellite can function without the ground segment. So, when we tell that to our customer, they’re like ‘Ooh.’”

“So, they have studied what’s going on there and we can bring capabilities to address that,” Alm added. And that’s meant that the narrative that we are putting forth has become extremely relevant for a lot of European customers right now.”

Worth waiting for

The debut of Ovzon’s first satellite marks the first privately-funded satellite for Sweden, but it has also faced some headwinds. A combination of production delays and the COVID-19 pandemic put the satellite notably behind schedule and the cost heading into the launch was estimated around 2 billion Swedish kronoa (equivalent to roughly $195 million). It was original scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 but was not ready to fly before the European workhorse rocket was retired.

Alm said despite the struggles, they’ve had strong support from their financial backers on their way to launch.

“Of course, the expectations are high and now that we’re [ready to launch] they’re going to be even higher, but I think we see that as a challenge and we’re ready to embrace it,” Alm said. “Obviously, it’s up to us to deliver now and I think that’s part of the excitement ahead because now we’re given a tool that will allow us to continue the growth that we’ve been on.

The Ovzon-3 satellite stands in its launch configuration. This will be the first, privately-funded satellite from Sweden. Image: Maxar Space Systems

Beginnings of a big year

The launch of the Ovzon-3 satellite continues what SpaceX hopes to be a historically busy year for the company. The mission will be the second orbital launch of 2024 for SpaceX and the first of the year with a paying customer.

The first stage booster supporting this mission, tail number B1076, will be making its 10th flight to date and will return to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station about eight minutes after liftoff.

This mission kicks off a busy couple of months for SpaceX that will be highlighted by the launch of two crewed missions to the International Space Station, the launch of a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS and a Moon-bound mission with Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander.

In a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, SpaceX Vice President of Launch Kiko Dontchev reiterated the company’s goal of launching 144 times before the year is out.

“The launch system (pads, recovery, flight hardware) needs to be capable of 13 [per] month so we can play catch up when planned maintenance, debacles and weather inevitably slow us down,” he wrote.