SpaceX steps into the small satellite game with a dedicated rideshare program
The way small satellites and scientific instruments find their way into space these days is generally by hitching a ride on large rockets carrying hefty payloads, wherever they can be squeezed in. But some are looking to change that, with NASA and startup Rocket Lab among them. SpaceX is now looking to muscle into the arena with a new launch program specifically for firing these small payloads into space atop its Falcon 9 rocket.
The role that CubeSats and other small spacecraft play in furthering our understanding of space, science and our home planet is only growing larger, with the history-making LightSail 2 that launched last month a prime example.
Cramming these small satellite in together, and amongst larger payloads, creates launch scenarios with a lot of moving parts and plenty of potential for delay. NASA's Venture Class Launch Services is a program seeking to foster alternatives that afford smaller satellites dedicated rides into space.
Back in 2015, it awarded its first contracts as part of this endeavor, with US startup Rocket Lab one of the three recipients. And last December it launched its first rocket as part of the agreement, firing 13 NASA CubeSats into specific orbits, including solar sail demonstrators and space weather instruments. Each of Rocket Lab's Electron rockets cost around US$5 million a piece.
But it may have one eye looking over its shoulder with SpaceX entering the fray. Elon Musk's space company bills its SmallSat Rideshare Program as "dedicated affordable rideshare to sun synchronous orbit." Missions as part of this program will use the company's Falcon 9 rocket and will be dedicated to bundles of small satellites rather than revolve around large, primary payloads. Prices will start at US$2.25 million per mission for a 150-kg (330-lb) payload.
It also guarantees that any customer that is ready to fly within a scheduled launch window, will fly no matter what, despite what delays may occur with their co-passengers. It also says that customers who do experience technical delays can rebook at a later date, though fees may apply in these situations.
The first Falcon 9 to fly as part of SpaceX's SmallSat RideShare Program is due to lift off between November 2020 and March 2021.