It was morning in California when SpaceX started a new record mission with the launch from the Vandenberg base of a Falcon 9 rocket whose first stage was on its third flight. Everything worked well, including the third controlled landing. In the meantime, the second stage brought a group of 64 small satellites into orbit and within about half an hour they were put into a Sun-synchronous orbit, hence the name SSO-A SmallSat Express mission. For SpaceX it was the 19th mission of the year, passing the 18 completed in 2017.
Typically, small or very small satellites find room in launches of larger satellites being put into orbit as secondary payloads but this means having to wait to find the right opportunity. Nanosatellites can more easily find room in cargo spacecraft that may have special launch systems, such as the latest version of the Russian Progress, or transport them to the International Space Station, which is equipped with a special launch system for those of CubeSat class, more and more common. With the growth of the market for these types of satellites various new solutions are emerging, in this case a rideshare launch for a total of about 4,000 kg of payload.
The absolute record for the number of satellites launched in a flight was established on February 15, 2017, when an Indian PSLV put 104 satellites into orbit. The 64 launched by SpaceX are in the second place and are the record for the USA and for Elon Musk’s company, which in this case supplied the rocket, leaving the customer management to Spaceflight, another aerospace company that specialized in this type of services. Basically, Spaceflight bought the Falcon 9 rocket launch and then sold the spots to a number of companies and organizations of various kinds.
Spaceflight also added the spacecraft that, once separated from the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage, started deploying the satellites following a precise order and a precise rhythm. Given the very large number of satellites, programming was essential to avoid collisions with the risk of damaging the spacecraft and causing the failure of other satellites’ deployment.
Rideshare launches of small and very small satellites will increase and new solutions are also emerging on the market. Rocket Lab is a company that recently completed its first commercial launch with its small Electron rocket, Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit is developing the LauncherOne system to launch a small rocket under the belly of a Boeing 747 aircraft and other companies in the coming years will offer different solutions to launch small or very small satellites.
It will be interesting to see how the market will evolve and if companies like Spaceflight will keep on setting up rideshare launches on rockets like the Falcon 9, which with the Block 5 version of the first stage has a launch capacity that now approaches that of heavy launchers. Costs are a key factor in choices and SpaceX keeps on working on reusing the various components of its rocket.
On several occasions the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket was reused a second time but in the SSO-A SmallSat Express mission for the first time a first stage made its third flight after the one of May 11, 2018 to put the Bangabandhu-1 satellite into orbit and that of August 7, 2018 to put the Merah Putih satellite into orbit. Yesterday it worked perfectly another time and landed on the automated drone ship “Just read the instructions” in the Pacific Ocean.
For SpaceX it was an important launch to prove the reliability of the Falcon 9’s first stage. With this success we can expect that within a few years the number of flights completed will become less and less important. Yesterday, SpaceX also made another attempt to recover the payload fairing: Elon Musk announced that they didn’t catch it in the big net built for that purpose but they recovered it in the ocean. The problem is that those are not just about two blocks of metal, but there are electronic parts and various mechanisms that can be degraded by salt water. The attempts will continue.