SpaceX puts record 143 satellites in orbit, with Spaceflight playing a supporting role

Alan Boyle
·5 min read
SpaceX launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket rises from its launch pad with 143 satellites on board. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX set a record for the number of satellites sent into orbit by a single rocket, and that’s not the only milestone reached during today’s Transporter-1 mission.

The Falcon 9 rocket launch also marked the orbital debut of Sherpa-FX, a satellite transfer vehicle made and managed by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc.

SpaceX had postponed the launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida for a day due to concerns about the potential for lightning. Today’s weather was also “a bit challenging,” launch commentator Andy Tran said, but all systems were go tor today’s liftoff at 10 a.m. ET (7 a.m. PT).

Minutes after launch, the Falcon’s second stage separated from the first-stage booster as planned. The booster, which had been used for four previous launches, flew itself back over the Atlantic Ocean to land on a drone ship dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You.” Yet another ship, Miss Chief, recovered components of the Falcon 9’s nose cone, or fairing.

Meanwhile, the second stage continued its ascent to orbit, loaded with satellites.

In all, 143 satellites were sent into a sun-synchronous, pole-to-pole orbit aboard the Falcon 9 — including 13 deployed from the Sherpa-FX. Spaceflight said two more spacecraft flew piggyback as hosted payloads aboard the Sherpa spacecraft, which is the space hardware equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. The Sherpa itself counts as one of the satellites.

The previous record of 104 satellites was set by India’s PSLV rocket in 2017, and Spaceflight was involved in that mission, too.

Among the spacecraft packed aboard the Sherpa were three of HawkEye 360’s radio-monitoring satellites, a NASA cubesat that will test a water-based propulsion system, and a container packed with cremated remains and DNA that was flown for Celestis as a memorial to its customers’ loved ones.

Spaceflight placed yet another satellite on the Falcon 9 for a separate deployment. That spacecraft, known as iQPS-2 or Izanami, will join what’s expected to become a constellation of satellites making radar observations of the planet below.

“This mission is a new milestone for Spaceflight,” senior mission manager Ryan Olcott said in a pre-launch blog posting. “Not only is it the debut flight of our next-gen Sherpa, we managed the end-to-end launch experience for 10 cubesats, four microsats and two hosted payloads — all during a global pandemic.”

Previously: Spaceflight Inc. fills out its line of Sherpa space tugs

Spaceflight Inc. called its part of the mission SXRS-3, one of a series of rideshare (RS) missions booked with SpaceX (SX). But SXRS-3 represented only about a tenth of the manifest for today’s mission.

Other payloads included 36 of Planet’s Earth-observing SuperDove satellites, 17 satellites for Kepler Communications’ “Internet of Things” constellation, nine payloads for Nanoracks’ Eyries-1 mission, 30 spacecraft flown for Exolaunch (including three ICEYE radar satellites), three cubesats for NASA’s V-R3x mission, 20 spacecraft deployed from D-Orbit’s space tug and two Capella radar spacecraft.

Thirty-six of the satellites on that list were built by Swarm Technologies and are no bigger than a slice of bread.

In addition to the customer payloads, SpaceX launched 10 satellites for its own Starlink broadband internet constellation. More than 1,000 operational Starlink satellites, manufactured at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash., have been launched since 2019. These 10 satellites, however, were the first to go into polar orbit. Starlink is already in the midst of a “better-than-nothing” beta test, and the new additions are expected to open the way for the expansion of beta availability.

Satellite deployment finished up 91 minutes after launch.

Today’s mission was conducted under the terms of SpaceX’s Smallsat Rideshare Program, which aims to reduce the complexity and cost of access to space for low-mass payloads. The price for sending 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of payload to a sun-synchronous orbit is $1 million, which translates to less than $2,500 per pound.

That’s an attractive arrangement for companies such as Spaceflight, which can put more than a dozen spacecraft on its Sherpa space tug and deploy them into different orbital locations. But there’s a downside, having to do with the difficulties of shepherding so many satellites through the launch process and tracking them once they’re deployed.

Spaceflight is already working on new variants of the Sherpa carrier that would be equipped with their own propulsion systems. Meanwhile, SpaceX is developing its Starship super-rocket, which will surely break today’s record for satellite deployment when it enters service. The next test of a Starship prototype could take place as early as this week.

Update for 4:45 p.m. PT Jan. 26: There’s yet another Seattle-area connection to one of the cubesats sent into orbit: Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited created the water-based propulsion system that’s being tested on NASA’s PTD-1 satellite.

The solar-powered Hydros system takes advantage of electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas, which can then be used as rocket propellants. The concept meshes well with the idea of extracting water ice from the moon or near-Earth asteroids for spacecraft refueling.

In an earlier update, we corrected the number of ICEYE satellites deployed to its proper three, and also updated the status of the Starship SN9 launch.

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