SpaceX Launches Transporter-3 Mission

SpaceX launched its third dedicated rideshare mission, Transporter-3, at 10:25am EST on January 13. This rideshare mission launched 104 small satellites into orbit.

The Falcon 9 first stage landed at Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX’s Transporter missions typically land the first stage boosters at a nearby landing zone on land instead of one of its drone barges.

Companies that launched small satellites on this mission include Planet, Spire, Kepler, Capella Space, Unseenlabs, Iceye and Umbra. Most of the companies were adding to already existing satellite constellations.

The satellites will serve a diverse set of purposes, including adding to Unseenlabs’ maritime domain awareness capabilities and demonstrating OroraTech’s ability to use satellites equipped with infrared cameras for early detection of wildfires.

Planet had the most satellites on this Transporter mission with 44 SuperDove satellites, which it uses for its Earth observation services. The biggest satellite on Transporter-3 was the 29-kilogram ETV-A1, a satellite built by Sen for its plan to transmit ultra-high-definition video from space.

The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority also launched a satellite on Transporter-3. The satellite, DEWA-SAT 1, will provide services for Internet-of-Things applications for its electrical and water systems. This is the first satellite owned by a utility service.

Most of the payloads were arranged by launch aggregators like D-Orbit, Spaceflight, and Exolaunch, which provide brokerage services for organizations seeking launch services for their small satellites.

And, yes, D-Orbit is best known for that time it tested a satellite reentry system that could function independently of the satellite as a way to address the issue of “dead” satellites that can in orbit for years – even decades. The concept could help avoid issues like the International Space Station having to maneuver to avoid “space junk” or China complaining about Starlink satellites almost colliding with its space station.

SpaceX’s dedicated rideshare missions make it possible to launch more small satellites without their owners having to wait for space on a launch of a larger payload. SpaceX is planning to launch three more Transporter missions this year. The Transporter missions provide a highly affordable way for companies and research organizations to launch small satellites.

Competition for the Transporter missions includes relatively new and less well-known aerospace companies like ExoLaunch, which offers rideshare and constellation launch services. Like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Rocket Lab’s Electron is a reusable rocket. Unlike the Falcon 9, though, Electron was specifically developed to launch small satellites on rideshare missions.

Some of the originally planned payload for Transporter-3 got shuffled around to these competitors or will be flown at a later date, likely due to technical issues. A Sherpa tug provided by Spaceflight was pulled from Transporter-3 due to a leak in its chemical propulsion system. Due to the removal of the Sherpa tug, a satellite owned by the Danish research center VZLU flew on a D-Orbit flight instead.

SpaceX’s next rideshare mission, Transporter-4, will include a cluster of radio-frequency monitoring satellites for Kleos. These satellites were due to fly on Transporter-3 but were delayed. Transporter-4 is scheduled to launch in April.