SpaceX has successfully launches its Transporter-1 mission, which sent 143 satellites into orbit for commercial and government-backed customers on a Falcon 9 rocket. The Transporter-1 launch beat a record set by an Indian rocket that sent 104 satellites into orbit in 2017.
The launch is the first in SpaceX’s SmallSat Rideshare Program, which aims to make it easier for customers to launch small satellites. Many small satellites are launched as a secondary payload that share a ride with a larger primary payload. The SmallSat Rideshare Program is not yet “on demand”, but can make the launch of small satellites less dependent on the launch schedule for larger primary payloads.
The Transporter-1 mission had been delayed from its original launch date in December 2020 due to a series of issues that mostly involved weather conditions. SpaceX prefers to follow strict weather rules in both the launch and landing sites during missions in which it intends to land its boosters back at its landing site or on one of its drone barges.
Due to unfavorable weather, we are standing down from today's launch; the team will continue with the countdown until T-30 seconds for data collection. Another launch attempt is available tomorrow, January 24 with a 22-minute window opening at 10:00 a.m. EST— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 23, 2021
The Falcon 9’s first stage booster had been used in five previous launches and successfully landed on the drone barge “Of Course I Still Love You.” With the successful retrieval, it can be repurposed for a future mission. Elon Musk showed enthusiasm for the ability to reduce launch costs by reusing hardware during the runup to the launch. With the reusable hardware, SpaceX can offer a “ride share” for a satellite of up to 200 kilograms for as little as $1 million. According to SpaceX’s website, a launch dedicated to a single satellite costs $62 million.
On Friday, Musk said he was “excited about offering low-cost assess to orbit for small companies!”
Along with the 133 satellites launched for SpaceX’s customers, the payload included ten of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, a relatively low number for a Starlink launch. These satellites will maneuver into a polar orbit, a first for Starlink. The satellites were added after one customer called Momentus took its Vigoride satellite off the mission, citing some last-minute regulatory concerns.
Rideshare customers’ deployment confirmed— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 24, 2021
Deployment of 10 Starlink satellites confirmed— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 24, 2021
SpaceX had also launched 60 satellites on Wednesday, which brings the total number of Starlink satellites up to over 1,000 out of a planned constellation of 42,000. Starlink’s Internet service is currently in the “Better Than Nothing Beta” phase, referencing its goal to be “better than nothing” in areas where access to the Internet has been dismal, too expensive for most people, or nonexistent. Beta testers have already reported that the Internet service seems to do pretty well even in harsh winter conditions.
With this launch, SpaceX joins a growing number of companies interested in capturing a share of the market for dedicated ride share missions for small satellites. ArianeSpace has recently started launching small satellites on its Vega rocket. Rocket Lab seems to be interested in being a serious competitor for SpaceX’s reusable rockets, having recently retrieved a booster for its Electron rocket after successfully launching 30 satellites into orbit.
Clients “hitching a ride” on today’s launch included Planet Labs, Exolaunch, D-Orbit, Kepler Communications, Spaceflight Inc, Nanoracks, NASA and Capella Space, as well as iQPS, Loft Orbital, Spire Global, ICEYE, HawkEye 360, Astrocast, and the University of South Florida Institute of Applied Engineering.