SpaceX deal boosts Falcon 9’s secondary payload manifest

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX and Spaceflight Inc. have agreed to a Launch Services Agreement (LSA) framework that will allow for a multitude of secondary payloads to hitch a ride uphill with future Falcon 9 launches. Attached to the Spaceflight Secondary Payload System (SSPS), numerous small satellites will be lofted into space on the Falcon 9’s Upper Stage.

Hitching A Ride With Falcon 9:

In what is a growing market, CubeSats, NanoSats and MicroSats are becoming all the rage, especially in the academic research, hardware qualification, biotechnology research and Earth observation arena.

However, these small scale spacecraft are usually low budget and can’t afford to purchase a launch vehicle dedicated to lofting them into space, resulting in groups of these small satellites joining forces and jumping onboard a rocket that is primarily tasked with launching a major satellite.

Such a practise is nothing new, with individual nanosats sometimes riding into orbit with even the most famous of vehicles, as seen with the Pico Satellite Solar Cell Testbed 2 (PSSC2) deployment from Atlantis during the final days of her STS-135 mission, an event that proved to be the last satellite deployment by a space shuttle prior to the fleet’s retirement.

Given their growing popularity, more and more of these tiny satellites are looking for rides into space, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 projected to be one of the more active launch vehicles over the years to come.

Classed as “secondary payloads”, SpaceX have already utilized the ability to carry additional passengers uphill with their recent Dragon mission to the ISS.

While the Falcon 9’s primary payload was the Dragon itself, a small capsule was deployed after spacecraft separation under an agreement with a company called Celestis.

This capsule, about the size of a microsat, contained the ashes of 308 people, including Mercury program astronaut Gordon Cooper and actor James Doohan, who played Scotty on the 1960s television series Star Trek.

SpaceX also have an agreement in place to launch 18 ORBCOMM Generation 2 (OG2) satellites, initially set to fly on their Falcon 1e. After working to further maximize the cost-effectiveness of their COTS/CRS missions, the Californian company decided to included the additional payloads as passengers on the Falcon 9′s second stage, allowing them to be deployed after the Dragon separates from the Falcon 9.

The first of these satellites were set to be deployed via the Falcon 9 launch for the C2+ mission. However, this caused International Space Station managers to evaluate the potential collision risk with the orbital outpost. As such, NASA had to use their experienced Monte Carlo analysis methods to clear this concern.

The realigned launch schedule will see a prototype second-generation Orbcomm spacecraft launch with the Falcon 9 set to deliver the first Commercial Resupply Mission (CRS-1) Dragon into orbit this summer, with the remaining 17 satellites – each with a mass of only 155 kilograms – to be launched on an undetermined number of Falcon 9 missions scheduled to occur by late 2014.

The Launch Services Agreement between SpaceX and Spaceflight Inc. will open with a commercial Falcon 9 mission in early 2013, resulting in a whole family of spacecraft roaring into the Florida sky from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The deal, announced this week, ranges back to when Spaceflight and SpaceX first signed a memorandum of understanding in 2010 to manifest secondary payloads on upcoming Falcon 9 flights. The LSA framework, recently signed by both parties, allows Spaceflight to manifest payloads on any Falcon vehicle designated by SpaceX as having excess capacity.

Spaceflight will use its Spaceflight Secondary Payload System (SSPS) to support a multitude of small payloads including CubeSats, NanoSats and MicroSats.

The SSPS uses a custom ring, manufactured by Moog CSA Engineering, and a series of shelves and adapters to accommodate secondary payloads on their ride to space. The ring is similar to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) ring.

The SSPS also features a standalone avionics and power system dedicated to monitoring the secondary payloads, initiating their deployment and relaying video and telemetry of their separation to a ground station.

“This is a significant milestone in the development of a robust launch capability for small and secondary payloads,” said Jason Andrews, President and CEO of Spaceflight Inc. “With the launch of our SSPS we now have a dedicated system to increase space access for this growing market segment.”

Only last month, the company also unveiled its SHERPA in-space tug, which is dedicated to hosting and deploying small and secondary payloads via a three-axis stabilized platform with over 400 meters per second of on-orbit maneuvering capability.

“SHERPA is the next step in providing space access for small and secondary payloads,” added Mr Andrews. “SHERPA builds on our Spaceflight Secondary Payload System (SSPS) by incorporating a propulsion and power generation system to allow us to host payloads, as well as place them in an orbit other than the primary payload’s orbit.”

SHERPA can also provide over 100 Watts of electrical lifeblood to hosted or secondary payloads and can be upgraded to meet specific customer power, propulsion and pointing requirements.

Spaceflight has been working with its sister company, Andrews Space (Andrews), since 2010 to develop the SSPS and SHERPA family. Andrews will fabricate the SSPS and SHERPA at its recently expanded facility in Tukwila, WA.

“We’ve seen strong demand for our SSPS and secondary payload launch services,” Mr Andrews continued. “However, one of the limitations has been that a portion of the secondary payload market requires going to a different altitude than that of the primary payload. SHERPA is designed to address this requirement, as well as expand our offering of services to include hosted payloads.”

Spaceflight’s first demonstration mission of SHERPA will occur in early 2014, with the first commercial mission scheduled for late 2014. Both missions will be carried to sun synchronous orbits on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

Although the amount of money involved was not revealed, the economics of secondary payloads will clearly benefit SpaceX’s costs per launch, topping up the revenue gained per Falcon 9’s launch performance capability, while providing these tiny spacecraft with a relatively cheap option for getting into space.

(Images via Spaceflight Inc. ORBCOMM and L2).

Related Articles