SpaceX Expands and Simplifies Small Satellite Rideshare Program

Last month, though, it was SpaceX — better known for launching large rockets than small — that made waves in the new space industry when it …

The market for small satellites — and the small rockets to launch them — is hot, hot, hot!

Hardly a month goes by without some new development in this space, whether it’s Rocket Lab reaching a new milestone in small rockets launched, or one of Sir Richard Branson’s “Virgin” companies announcing some new twist to the rockets story. Last month, though, it was SpaceX — better known for launching large rockets than small — that made waves in the new space industry when it announced an upcoming series of “regularly scheduled, dedicated Falcon 9 rideshare missions” that would carry exclusively satellites massing up to 150 kilograms and put them in orbit for “as low as $2.25 million per mission.”

At the time, I suggested SpaceX was attempting to disrupt the market for small rockets before it reaches critical mass, pre-empting a move to smaller rockets by offering similar services for cheaper prices. But there was still just one problem with SpaceX’s plan:

Even scheduling regular trips to orbit, SpaceX was only planning to launch dedicated rideshare missions once per year. For any small satellite operator needing to travel to space sooner, that wait might prove too long, opening up a niche for small rocket makers: rocket launches on demand.

Now SpaceX is moving to close that gap in service and eliminate that niche.

Time lapse photo shows trails of a rocket launching and landing to form an X in the sky

SpaceX is making its mark, and claiming all of space launch as its own. Image source: SpaceX.

Monthly rocket rides to space

In a quick tweak to its Smallsat Rideshare Program announced last month, SpaceX has confirmed that in addition to its annual mass satellite bus-rides to orbit, it will now also be offering “monthly missions.” It will do this by allowing small satellite operators to hop aboard the monthly launches SpaceX itself will be running as it puts its own Starlink satellites in orbit.

Now, we’ve already run down the details of SpaceX’s original flight plan: Beginning sometime between late 2020 and late 2021, the company will offer customers the chance to book a slot on one of its “Dedicated ESPA Class” Falcon 9 launches to sun-synchronous orbit. Subsequent missions will launch roughly once per year, in the first quarter of every year, and will fly regardless of whether the rocket has booked enough reservations to max out its capacity — meaning there are guaranteed launch dates.

The big change is that in addition to these guaranteed, annual departures, SpaceX will now be offering monthly launch opportunities. Because SpaceX is planning to rapidly accelerate the launch tempo of its Starlink missions so as to get its satellite broadband constellation in operation sooner, it’s now able to use these additional monthly launches to also carry third parties’ satellites. In so doing, SpaceX can offer customers the best of both worlds — guaranteed launch dates once per year for folks who can wait that long, and more flexible, once-per-month launch slots available to those who simply cannot wait.

Adding to the attractiveness of the program, SpaceX has simplified (and lowered) the rideshare program’s pricing, while raising its capacity. Previously, the plan was to charge customers $2.25 million to launch a payload massing up to 150 kilograms. But that price may have been just a bit too close to what competitors such as New Zealand’s Rocket Lab were offering.

To make the difference much more stark, SpaceX will now advertise launch prices “as low as $1 million.” And it will carry payloads up to 200 kilograms in mass for that price, with an excess baggage fee of $5,000 for every 1 kg a customer goes over the weight limit. Basically, what that works out to is a launch cost of $5000 per kilo no matter how big a customer’s satellite is, with a $1 million minimum ticket price.

What it means for the competition

So what’s the upshot of all this?

At last report, Rocket Lab — the only small rocket maker that wants to compete in the market for launching small satellites and has proven its ability to launch its rockets successfully — was charging about $1 million to put a 12U “cube” satellite (which would mass about 16 kilograms) into orbit. For an equivalent price, SpaceX is now offering to orbit a satellite 12.5 times as large — or perhaps to orbit 12.5 satellites for that same low price.

Got a bigger satellite you want to launch? An entire Electron rocket mission, carrying a maximum payload of perhaps 225 kilograms, would cost about $6.5 million at Rocket Lab, whereas SpaceX will launch a similar-size satellite for just $1 million and change. And SpaceX is offering to launch these satellites about as often as Rocket Lab is already doing so today — once per month.

I don’t know about you, but it sure looks to me like SpaceX is trying to smother the small rocket market in its cradle. At prices like these, it just might succeed.

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Watch: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Takes A Rough Emergency System Test

SpaceX is banking on its commercial space taxi, Crew Dragon to fly seven astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in an orbital mission to …

SpaceX is banking on its commercial space taxi, Crew Dragon to fly seven astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in an orbital mission to and from Earth. So far, the American aerospace company has completed over 700 tests of the space cab’s SuperDraco engines, that allow for orbital maneuvering.

SEE ALSO: NASA Astronauts Try On Next-Gen SpaceX Spacesuits For The 2020 Mars Mission

Now, the Crew Dragon is being tested rigorously for its emergency abort system, as per a video that was posted by SpaceX on Twitter. The dramatic video shows the space cab outfitted with eight SuperDraco engines, allowing it to cover half a mile in just 7.5 seconds at the time of an emergency, as tweeted by SpaceX. The maximum speed that the Crew Dragon can reach at this point is 436 metres per hour.

Ahead of our in-flight abort test for @Commercial_Crew—which will demonstrate Crew Dragon’s ability to safely carry astronauts away from the rocket in the unlikely event of an emergency—our team has completed over 700 tests of the spacecraft’s SuperDraco engines pic.twitter.com/nswMPCK3F9

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 12, 2019

Fired together at full throttle, Crew Dragon’s eight SuperDracos can move the spacecraft 0.5 miles—the length of over 7 American football fields lined up end to end—in 7.5 seconds, reaching a peak velocity of 436 mph

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 12, 2019

As the system deploys mid-air, parachutes ensure that the craft safely lands back on Earth. This mechanism is carefully designed for when something goes wrong with the rocket carrying the Crew Dragon to orbit. The module, thus, can fire up its thrusters to quickly evade the danger and then, balloon down sustaining minimal damage to the craft.

SEE ALSO: SpaceX Dragon Returns To Earth From The International Space Station With Science Hauls for NASA

But it hasn’t always been a smooth ride testing out the Crew Dragon. The same engines that make up the integrated launch system, caused the first Crew Dragon capsule to blow up during a system check in April. The explosion happened due to a leaking valve. As per Digital Trends, the aerospace company’s Falcon 9 booster launched the Crew Dragon capsule into orbit on July 25. The Dragon capsule contains 5,500 pounds worth of equipment for experiments and ongoing scientific research to supply the ISS.

As SpaceX is perfecting its soon-to-be-manned capsule, it tested out the first stage of its Falcon 9 boosters that will be responsible for launching two NASA astronauts into orbit as a part of Crew Dragon’s first-ever chartered test flight. The exact date of that test flight is still uncertain.

SEE ALSO: SpaceX To Launch Its First Commercial Starship Mission In 2021

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In the most advanced test yet, SpaceX’s Starship prototype plans to fly to an altitude of 22.5km before landing on the same launch pad it used to take …

In the most advanced test yet, SpaceX’s Starship prototype plans to fly to an altitude of 22.5km before landing on the same launch pad it used to take off.

By Ian Horswill