8 August, 2018
Later this year, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch more than 70 satellites into orbit — the largest batch of satellites sent into space at one time from one of the company’s vehicles or of any other US rocket company. Dubbed the SSO-A mission, the flight is scheduled to take off from Vandenberg Air Force in California in late 2018, though an exact date has yet to be determined.
The epic satellite rideshare was coordinated and brokered by Spaceflight Industries — a company dedicated to finding launch “real estate” for small satellites that need to get into space. Spaceflight has become a go-to resource for many small satellite manufacturers, as they have limited options for getting their hardware into orbit. Huge rockets like the Falcon 9 or Atlas V are typically far too big and expensive to send a handful of tiny satellites into space. For the last decade, these companies have only really had just two options: launch their satellites as cargo to the International Space Station, where they are later deployed, or hitch a ride on the flight of a larger satellite.
Spaceflight will work with manufacturers to find extra room on rockets that are already scheduled to launch bigger payloads into orbit. The company will then figure out a way to help integrate those small satellites into the mission, so that multiple payloads can go up at once. So far, Spaceflight has found rides for more than 140 different satellites on multiple launch vehicles. The company even helped to book room for 20 satellites on one of the most massive rocket rideshare yet, when an Indian PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket launched 104 satellites into orbit in February 2017.
The difference with this upcoming Falcon 9 flight from other rideshares is that Spaceflight bought this entire Falcon 9 vehicle outright in 2015, and has been filling up the launch manifest ever since. Now, a total of 71 satellites are scheduled to fly, according to new details released by Spaceflight today. These include 15 larger microsatellites, and 56 smaller standardized satellites known as CubeSats. The probes range in weight from 11 pounds to 660 pounds. Up to 18 different countries have payloads on the flight, including the United States, Australia, Thailand, Poland, and more. And about three-fourths of these satellites are commercial payloads, while universities and even a high school have their own hardware going up. Two art exhibits will also be onboard.
All of the satellites are slated to go into a low path above Earth known as a sun-synchronous orbit. It’s a route that allows satellites to pass over the same patch of the Earth’s surface at the same time each day. Once the Falcon 9 launches, it will take between six to eight hours to deploy all 71 satellites into this orbit. Deploying all of these probes at the right time will be an incredibly complex sequence of events, according to Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight’s launch services group. The satellites will be loaded onto a large structure known as a payload stack that is mounted on top of the rocket. This stack is equipped with various mechanisms that will jettison the satellites one by one at the right time in space.