- Parabolic Arc
- November 2, 2023
Transporter-9 Carries Over 100 Satellites to Space
SpaceX concluded another successful Transporter ridesharing mission on Saturday (November 11), with Transporter-9 carrying over 110 satellites and payloads into orbit for companies including Planet Labs, GHGSat, and FoxConn into orbit following a successful launch at Vandenberg Air Force base in California.
Transporters, Launchers, and Tugs
The “Transporter” SmallSat ridesharing missions are intended to democratize access to space by bundling together a large number of small satellites, many of them comparatively tiny CubeSats and NanoSats, in one large mission aboard a Falcon 9 Block 5 launcher.
By waiting for a Transporter mission instead of contracting with a small launch operator like Rocket Labs or arranging for launch alongside one of SpaceX’s other missions, the companies that develop these SmallSats are able to bring down the cost of launch significantly. These missions open up space to a number of different organizations that would be otherwise unable to see orbit, including small- to medium-sized enterprises, schools, and non-profit organizations.
The satellite rideshare concept has grown in popularity since SpaceX began launching them, and the missions have now given rise to several other companies that specialize in helping companies get their satellites into space. Some, like D-Orbit, Exotrail, and Impulse Space, build spacecraft called orbital transfer vehicles which launch inside the Falcon 9 and carry smaller CubeSats and nanosats into different orbits. Other integrators, like Exolaunch, provide CubeSat deployment systems that attach to the Falcon 9. These allow for large numbers of small satellites to take up a comparatively small number of attachment points on the Falcon. Companies like these have become an important part of the growing space economy, and Transporter missions are key to their business.
During Transporter-9, 90 satellites were deployed from the Falcon itself, including from CubeSat deployment systems, while another 23 were carried by OTVs into other orbits. Exolaunch was responsible for deploying 35 satellites, including 28 CubeSats. Other launch integrators were SEOPS, which launched three CubeSats; and Momentus, which launched four.
Transporter-9’s launch was typical for SpaceX, and familiar to viewers at this point. While the actual launch was delayed from Thursday, Saturday’s livestreamed launch ticked down like clockwork. Preparations, countdown, and launch were carried out with no surprises and minimal delays. Launch occurred at 1:49 PM EST (10:49 AM local California time.)
The liquid-fueled Falcon 9 launched normally, hit Max-Q, MECO, and stage separation normally, and viewers were treated to the now-familiar sight of watching the second stage burn into orbit while the first stage turned around to land itself back on Earth through an overcast sky.
This was the 12th mission for the first stage booster used in Transporter-9, B1071-12, having also launched six Starlink missions as well as the NROL-85, NROL-87, SARah-1, and SWOT missions. The second stage featured a Merlin Vacuum engine with a slightly shorter nozzle, meaning livestream viewers were treated to a much more visible flame from the engine than normally seen in a SpaceX launch.
After achieving its sun-synchronous delivery orbit of 520 kilometers 54 minutes into the mission, the Falcon began releasing its cargo of satellites, a process that took an hour and a half.
Satellites and OTVs
There were a large variety of notable satellites launched as part of the Transporter-9 mission.
The largest single customer for Transporter-9, at least by numbers, appeared to be Planet Labs. The company launched 36 of their 3U SuperDove satellites to replenish their existing constellation of over 150 Earth observation satellites. They also launched their tech demonstration satellite, Pelican-1, which is (according to the company) intended to “validate the design and operations of Planet’s common bus platform” that will “host Planet’s next generation of imaging sensors” in upcoming constellations.
Other noteworthy Earth imaging companies that launched satellites on this mission include Umbra, ICEYE, and GHGSat. Umbra and ICEYE are both Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) companies, which use radar for detailed ground imaging. Umbra launched two satellites, the Umbra 7/8, while ICEYE launched four microsats: ICEYE 31/32/33/34. The ICEYE satellites were deployed by Exolaunch.
Meanwhile, GHGSat’s C-9/10/11 methane-tracking satellites (named “Juba”, “Vanguard”, and “Elliot” respectively after GHGSat employees’ children) were actually the first to be launched. GHGSat’s methane-tracking satellites are used by private industry to discover methane leaks at remote facilities, and by public-sector and governmental customers for emissions-tracking and policymaking purposes. The satellites were built and integrated by Spire, with payloads by GHGSat. They were originally supposed to launch with Virgin Orbit, until that company’s bankruptcy earlier this year.
GHGSat C-10 satellite also debuted their CO2-tracking imaging with the Vanguard satellite. In their announcement, Spire called it the first commercial CO2 sensor, and said it was “the beginning in frequent, precise and independent high-resolution CO2 data collection.” The GHGSat satellites were also deployed by Exolaunch.
In the same announcement, Spire also announced that they built satellites for several other organizations that went up with Transporter-9: Ella 1 for HiSky, two “Mango” satellites for Jacobs, and three Vindler satellites for SNC. The HiSky satellite, according to Spire, is designed to “showcase the capabilities” of HiSky’s ground network, specifically its ability to switch between LEO and Geosynchronous (GEO) satellite networks, to minimize either latency or transfer time for data connections. The SNC sats are focused on RF detection, while the Jacobs sats are testing software-defined radio and a chip-scale atomic clock.
Kepler Communications launched two satellites, ÆTHER-1 and 2, which are technology-testing satellites. Canadian space news site SpaceQ said that they believe that both are “the production version of their Aether-Ku communication satellites which will deliver ‘300+ Mbps from low Earth orbit (LEO)’.”
A newcomer to the Transporter missions was Taiwanese Foxconn, also known as Hon Hai Technology Group. They had Exolaunch launch two satellites for them, PEARL-1H and PEARL-1C, which are a “proof of the concept for our efforts in LEO satellite broadband communications and next-gen, beyond 5G capabilities,” according to a November 6 statement by Jen-Ming Wu, Director of the Next-generation Communications Research Center at Hon Hai Research Institute.
D-Orbit’s ION OTV is carrying a variety of satellites to different orbits. These include a 6U satellite by AAC Clyde Space for hyperspectral imaging company Wyvern, the Ymir-1 maritime communications satellite (also made by AAC Clyde, with Saab and Orbcomm), the KP Labs Intuition 1 hyperspectral imaging satellite, and a number of tiny PocketQube satellites made by Alba Orbital, among others. The other OTVs, from Exotrail and Impulse Space, were mostly intended as demonstration craft, though the Impulse Space OTV did carry the “Time We’ll Tell” satellite for Trustpoint.
The final satellite launched on Transporter-9 was the US Air Force Academy’s FalconSAT-X microsatellite. FalconSAT satellites are a means by which cadets at the Space Systems Research Center can “design, analyze, build, test and operate small satellites to conduct Department of Defense space missions,” according to the Air Force.