Elon Musk's SpaceX is Providing ‘Aerospace Ride-Sharing' to San Francisco-based Earth Imaging Company Planet Labs

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【Summary】San Francisco-based private Earth-imaging company Planet Labs is using SpaceX’s "aerospace ride-share" launch service to deploy its next 6 SkySat satellites into Low Earth Orbit.

Manish Kharinta    May 21, 2020 12:30 PM PT
Elon Musk's SpaceX is Providing ‘Aerospace Ride-Sharing' to San Francisco-based Earth Imaging Company Planet Labs
Starting at $1 million, SpaceX will launch small satellites for individuals, businesses or researchers during one of its scheduled missions.

In August of 2019, private aerospace company SpaceX announced its Smallsat Rideshare Program, which marked the company's official entry into aerospace launch services business. 

The SpaceX SmallSat Rideshare program allows companies to launch their smaller satellites into orbit starting at $1 million, by sharing the spacecraft with a larger payload during a mission.

The service is the first of its kind in the aerospace industry. SpaceX also announced that it will co-opt its Starlink missions to facilitate the satellite "aerospace ride-sharing" service model.

Starlink is a SpaceX subsidiary project which aims to offer worldwide high-speed internet using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. The Starlink network will eventually consist of thousands of small satellites that work in combination with ground transceivers supporting broadband internet with low latency around the world.

San Francisco-based private Earth-imaging company Planet Labs Inc. is using SpaceX's aerospace ride-share service to deploy its next 6 SkySat satellites into LEO. 

The SpaceX the rideshare program offers companies like Planet Labs a much more affordable option to launch their small payloads into orbit, as booking an entire rocket to launch a satellite can cost $50 million or more. 

The SpaceX SmallSat aerospace ride-share program allows Planet's SkySat satellites to hitch a ride aboard two upcoming SpaceX Starlink deployments. The first mission is scheduled for June. 

For the first mission, three of six SkySats will deploy with a payload of 60 Starlink satellites. The additional 3 SkySats will be launched over the Summer. Following these launches, Planet Lab's Earth imaging satellite network will comprise 21 high-resolution observational satellites. 

Both missions will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.


The Planet Labs imaging satellites capture high resolution pictures of Earth. (Photo: Planet Labs Inc.)

With prices starting at $1 million, the aerospace ride-sharing program is open to individuals, companies, and space agencies looking to launch smallsats. Interested parties can go on the official SpaceX website and book slots for their payload deployment.

NASA describes smallsats as orbiting satellites with a mass less than 180 kilograms and around the size of a large kitchen refrigerator. The Planet Labs smallsat payload weighs around 250 lbs.

The first smallsat missions were the launch of Pioneer 10 and 11 launched March 1972 and April 1973, respectively.  These missions set the stage for the later Voyager 1 & 2 missions.  

The Idea behind the Starlink Smallsat launch is to use rockets that would otherwise be too big and impractical to launch small satellites. Loading the Falcon 9 rocket up with multiple smaller satellites is a better option in order to maximize the rocket's payload capacity.

In December 2018, SpaceX used the Falcon 9 rocket to put 64 such satellites into orbit by collaborating with Seattle-based aerospace launch services company Spaceflight.

Following this mission, both companies agreed that the Falcon 9 rocket did not offer an optimum solution for a dedicated smallsat launch. Spaceflight decided to update its approach, since it was facing multiple delays, which caused the company to miss launches on multiple occasions.

Spaceflight and SpaceX solved this problem by spliting the next 120 satellite payload between multiple smaller missions.

In addition to building the spacecraft, SpaceX also manages the schedules and requirements of its customers based on their payload dimensions and specifications which allows it to carry out multiple Smallsat launches.

The technical and operational details of the mission remain unclear, as both SpaceX and its customers have refrained from disclosing any information about their upcoming missions.

SpaceX has gone to great lengths to utilize the onboard cargo space as much as possible by stacking the smaller Starlink units atop the Planet Labs' comparatively larger satellites.

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