SpaceX is getting into the rocket ride-share business, giving companies the opportunity to launch bundles of small satellites into orbit on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Up until now, SpaceX has mostly focused on launching heavier, bus-sized satellites to space or bulky cargo capsules to the International Space Station. The new program, called the SmallSat Rideshare Program, will offer operators of tiny satellites more flexibility when launching to space.
Typically, small satellites — weighing in at a few hundred pounds — have to hitch rides on big rockets that are already slated to launch much larger cargo to orbit. The satellites can tag along if there’s any leftover room on the rocket and get dropped off in space along the way. However, these ride-shares aren’t always ideal for small satellite operators, as they are reliant on the main satellite or payload being ready for launch. Plus, the operators don’t get to dictate the exact orbit they want and often have to compromise on the final destination for their satellites.
What SpaceX is proposing is a series of Falcon 9 missions that don’t have a primary satellite. Instead, these flights will carry a series of small satellites that can weigh between 330 pounds (150 kilograms) to 660 pounds (300 kilograms). The small satellites will ride into space attached to ports on a payload deployer, a metallic tube mounted on top of the rocket. There’s even a port on top of the deployer that can accommodate a larger satellite if necessary. (SpaceX did not state the total weight the deployer could hold for these ride-shares.) Once in orbit, each satellite will be deployed into space one by one by the tube. As of now, SpaceX is offering rides out of California to a type of orbit known as Sun-synchronous orbit — a low path above Earth that syncs with the timing of the Sun.
The cost to fly on one of these dedicated ride-shares is relatively cheap, at least for the satellite industry. For a satellite weighing up to 330 pounds, the base cost is $2.25 million, according to SpaceX. Heavier satellites weighing up to 660 pounds will cost $4.5 million. The prices are expensive, but also fairly competitive with other launch providers. Rocket Lab — a US company dedicated to launching tiny satellites — charges about $5 to $6 million per flight. Its vehicle is capable of launching between 330 pounds and 500 pounds (225 kilograms) to the same orbit.
“SpaceX is committed to serving the commercial market as it grows and changes, and we believe we can address the needs of small satellite operators by offering reliable, cost-effective access to orbit through regularly scheduled, dedicated rideshare missions,” a SpaceX spokesperson said in a statement to The Verge.
The company is also offering flexible timing. SpaceX says satellites can be added to a ride-share mission as few as six months beforehand, though extra costs will apply. Satellites can opt to drop out of the mission, too, and rebook for a later flight — for a fee, of course. If a few operators do need to drop out of a mission, it shouldn’t affect the mission’s schedule. “Dedicated rideshare missions will not be delayed by co-passenger readiness,” SpaceX writes on its website.
Offering dedicated ride-shares like this isn’t exactly a new practice. Other launch providers, like Rocket Lab, have already started launch missions solely for tiny satellites, while India’s PSLV rocket broke the record for launching the largest amount of satellites — 104 — into space at one time. Even SpaceX performed a dedicated ride-share mission in December, launching 64 payloads into orbit at once. That flight, known as the SSO-A mission, was actually coordinated through a company called Spaceflight Industries, which organizes ride-shares for small satellite operators. Spaceflight Industries says it is getting out of the business of organizing ride-shares on large vehicles like the Falcon 9, though. “Based on Spaceflight’s experience, providing ride-share services on small- and medium-sized launch vehicles is becoming a better fit for its customers’ needs,” the company said in a statement to The Verge.
Around the same time that SpaceX unveiled its ride-share program, European launch provider Arianespace announced that it, too, would conduct a small satellite ride-share mission on its future Ariane 6 rocket for the first half of 2022.
Rocket ride-shares are becoming more popular as satellites trend smaller and smaller. No longer do spacecraft need to be built the size of a bus and weigh thousands of pounds to function properly in orbit. Thanks to the miniaturization of electronics and the standardization of satellite technology, manufacturers are able to build vehicles as small as cereal boxes that are just as capable as their predecessors. And that makes these satellites much cheaper to make and operate, though they typically don’t last in space for very long.
As satellites have shrunk, new launch providers have popped up to accommodate these vehicles. Rocket Lab is just one of many startups, including Virgin Orbit, Vector, and more, that is building rockets that are designed just to launch smaller payloads to orbit. These companies, combined with ride-share opportunities, give small satellite operators multiple options for getting into space.
SpaceX already has dates set for its first few ride-share missions. The first mission is slated for between November 2020 and March 2021. The second and third flights are set for the first quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023, respectively. That means there’s plenty of time for an operator to book a slot on one of these missions.