As early as Saturday morning, SpaceX will launch the first dedicated mission of a rideshare program it announced in late 2019. As part of this plan, the company sought to bundle dozens of small satellites together for regular launches on its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.
There seems to have been a fair amount of interest in the program, which offered a very low price of $15,000 per kilogram delivered to a Sun-synchronous orbit. For its first “Transporter-1 mission,” SpaceX said it will launch 133 commercial and government spacecraft, as well as 10 of its own Starlink satellites. SpaceX had to obtain permission to deploy these Starlink satellites into a polar orbit.
With this launch of 143 total satellites, SpaceX will surpass the previous record holder for most satellites launched in a single mission, set by an Indian launch vehicle in 2017. In February of that year, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle successfully delivered 104 satellites into a handful of different Sun-synchronous orbits.
SpaceX has not disclosed many details about the popularity of its rideshare program, nor has the company announced the number of payloads booked on future launches. However, several customers have said they were surprised by the cost and speed of the service SpaceX offered. Last year, after booking as a rideshare on a Starlink launch that flew in the summer of 2020, the satellite operator Planet publicly discussed how quickly the deal came together.
“This is the result of SpaceX dramatically cutting the cost of access to launch,” Mike Safyan, vice president of launch at Planet, said in June. “It’s significant. They cut the price so much we could not believe what we were looking at.”
Planet is launching 48 of its SuperDove satellites on the Transporter-1 mission.
The mission will be closely followed by small satellite rocket companies, including Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, which now have proven boosters, as well as companies still developing their rockets. While smaller rockets can offer dedicated service for small satellites by putting them up one or two at a time, it will be difficult to compete with SpaceX on price. Competitors will be watching to see how orderly the dispersal of the satellites will be—according to SpaceX’s timeline for the mission, deployment will occur in 12 waves.
Weather is a moderate concern for Saturday’s launch attempt, which is scheduled for 9:40am ET (14:40 UTC) from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. According to forecasters, there is a 40 percent chance of weather violations due to thick clouds and cumulus clouds. Weather in the recovery area for the booster looks good.
The first stage of this rocket will be making its fifth flight. It made its debut back in May 2020 with the historic Demo-2 mission that carried Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station. Since then, it has flown about every two months. It last launched a cargo supply mission for NASA to the International Space Station on December 6.
A webcast should begin about 15 minutes before the launch window opens on Saturday morning.
Listing image by Trevor Mahlmann