The Royal Thai Air Force’s (RTAF’s) second Earth-observation satellite, Napa-2, was one of 88 satellites launched on SpaceX’s Transporter-2 mission on June 30. The Transporter missions are SpaceX’s dedicated rideshare missions designed to send up more small satellites at the same time than would be possible if a small satellite “piggybacked” as a secondary payload to a larger primary payload.
Like Napa-1, which was launched from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana aboard an Arianespace Vega rocket last September, the Napa-2 satellite is designed to monitor Thai airspace for defense and national security purposes. Both satellites are also designed to provide information that can help improve efforts to respond to natural disasters and monitor environmental conditions like air and water quality.
A Netherlands-based company named Innovative Solutions In Space (ISISPACE) built both satellites. Napa-2 is equipped with what it calls a “Simera Sense Multiscape Imager,” which can detect seven bands in the visual and near-infrared spectrums. Resolution for the imager can get as precise as 5 meters on Earth’s surface.
The Transporter missions are designed to make space more accessible for private organizations and government entities who would like to send up small satellites, but may not have the budget for a dedicated launch. The Transporter-1 launch sent 143 satellites into orbit, setting a new record for the most satellites sent up in a single launch. Customers for the Transporter-1 dedicated rideshare mission included NASA, the University of South Florida Institute of Applied Engineering, Planet Labs, Exolaunch, D-Orbit, Kepler Communications, and Spaceflight Inc.
According to information on SpaceX.com, a dedicated Falcon 9 launch can cost as much as $62 million, though some customers like the U.S. Air Force and Space Force have expressed interest in saving money by launching hardware like GPS satellites on previously flown boosters. Customers can also save money on each launch by discussing a “package deal” of multiple launches with SpaceX.
The lower cost of reusable boosters has also attracted private companies like satellite radio company SiriusXM, which recently launched two new satellites on SpaceX rockets to replace its aging existing constellation.
Space agencies also like the idea of saving money on space launches in an environment where they are so often scapegoats for irresponsible spending by governments even though NASA’s budget is usually lower than the United States’ military spending by at least a factor of 10. Last year, SpaceX launched the Sentinel-6 ocean observation satellite for the European Space Agency. The vastly lower bid price is believed to be a major factor in NASA’s selection of SpaceX’s proposal for the development of a lunar lander for the Artemis Program, though Blue Origin has since held up progress on the lunar lander by challenging the selection.
SpaceX’s goal for the Transporter program is to make the launch of small satellites less dependent on the launch schedule for larger primary payloads while still keeping these launches affordable for more private organizations that are interested in sending one up. Competitors for the small satellite launch market include ArianeSpace and Rocket Labs. Rocket Labs’ recent successes include the retrieval of a booster for its Electron rocket after launching 30 satellites, making it a possible competitor for the reusable booster market.