Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has just soared into the history books, making New Zealand just the eleventh nation to achieve satellite launch capability — although uniquely in the world, this was not a government operation, but a strictly private one. Arguably, Rocket Lab is even more private than SpaceX, as they do not lease a launch facility from a government agency — they own it outright, and built it all themselves. (The first purely commercial rocket, Pegasus, technically also has a privately operated launch facility, the L-1011 Tristar named “Stargazer”. But to date it has operated exclusively out of government airfields, as it’s easier for the materials handling issues that come up with a big solid-propellant rocket.) The vehicle, nicknamed “Still Testing”, was their second attempt, after an attempt last year (nicknamed “It’s A Test”) ended in a deliberate destruction due to telemetry loss during ascent. It carried three Cubesats to orbit, and the ambition is to free Cubesats from needing to piggyback along with bigger vehicles that just happen to be going to a mostly-acceptable orbital inclination, as Electron aims to be cheap enough for just a few Cubesats to pay for the mission. Time will tell if that’s achievable, but Cubesat operators such as Planet Labs (who flew a Dove imaging satellite on this mission) and Spire Global (who flew two of their Lemur communications satellites on this mission) seem confident. The launch site on Mahia Peninsula offers a very impressive range of orbital inclinations, promising to place smallsats anywhere from 31 degrees to polar orbits.
Here’s the official webcast; skip ahead to 14:50 for the exciting bits. 😉
Not that it’s exactly a race anymore; the game has clearly changed massively with satellite operators such as Planet Labs, the company also largely responsible for PSLV seizing first place in this category. Planet Labs placed 88 of its “Dove” CubeSats into orbit on a PSLV last February, and another 48 aboard Soyuz last Friday. These are imagery spacecraft, designed to completely rewrite the rules of satellite image procurement — instead of building massive, expensive, highly sophisticated spacecraft akin to spy satellites, they’re building CubeSat with relatively inexpensive cameras — but lots of them. Their resolution is less, but the availability is much greater, and although the satellites are so small and light that they don’t stay in orbit for more than a few years, this also means they’re self-cleaning and easily replenished because they are so cheap. It also partially compensates for their small size — they’re dwarfed by the big commercial imaging sats (to say nothing of spy satellites) but they fly much, much lower.
The primary payload aboard this flight was Kanopus-V-IK, a Russian civilian imaging satellite operated by Roscosmos for the purpose of emergency response. It carries multispectral imagers particularly useful for tracking wildfires. Kanopus-V-IK is a traditional spacecraft, large and equipped with propulsion. The Doves were not its only smallsat neighbors for the flight; other payloads included eight Lemurs from Spire Global (to provide weather forecasting information), three CICERO cubesates from GeoOptics (Spire’s closest competitor), two LandMapper-BC cubesats from Astro Digital, Tyvak’s experimental NanoACE (to test propulsion for nanosatellites; Tyvak is a launch broker), the Flying Laptop (a smallsat capable of searching for NEOs while testing a new type of On Board Computer) from the University of Stuttgart, Technosat from the Technical University of Berlin, Norsat 1 & 2 (Norway’s first scientific satellites, to improve merchant marine tracking and communications, and originally scheduled to fly on a Soyuz out of French Guiana), the Japanese WNISAT 1R small weather satellite, the crowd-funded Mayak solar sail from Moscow Polytechnic University (which could become brighter than the ISS when deployed), and four other Russian CubeSats.
FYI, third place is 37 satellites. It was set in 2014 by a Ukrainian-built Dnepr rocket out of Dombarovsky Air Base in Russia. The fact that the three records have all been set in the last five years — and with such a huge gap — is indicative of a major trend in spaceflight. Things are changing.
India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which has become quite the commercial workhorse in the last few years, just obliterated the record for most satellites placed into orbit with a single launch, placing an incredible 104 satellites into orbit. The primary payload was Cartosat 2D, a large environmental mapping satellite. After it was released, two Indian nanosatellites were ejected to test out new sensors. And then came the real marathon — 101 satellites being deployed from 25 Dutch-built “QuadPack” launchers, while the PSLV’s upper stage maintained a very precise and stable orientation as the remaining satellites were ejected two at a time. If that’s not amazing enough, here’s another tidbit for you: the QuadPacks were only added to the launch manifest in the past six months! They’re built by a company called Innovative Solutions in Space, which aims to reduce the time and other barriers to getting a payload into orbit by arranging “rideshare” deals on other spacecraft. This was most definitely the biggest rideshare they’ve arranged so far. Among the 101 were eight Lemur weather nanosats from Spire Global of San Francisco, BGUSat from Ben Gurion University and Israel Aerospace Industries, the experimental Piezo Electric Assisted Smart Satellite Structure (PEASS) from the Netherlands, DIDO from SpacePharma in Switzerland, Al-Farabi 1 from students in Kazakhstan, Nayif 1 from students in the United Arab Emirates, and a whopping 88 Dove satellites for Planet, a San Fransisco satellite imaging company that has been arranging various “flocks” of its Dove satellites. This is by far the largest flock yet.
So, what does a launch of 104 satellites look like? Well, disappointingly, from the ground it looks like any other, since all the interesting stuff happens after its above the atmosphere. But that still means it looks pretty cool. 😉