SpaceX launched the Transporter-7 rideshare mission from Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Space Force Base. The mission lifted off on Friday, April 14, 2023, at 11:48 PM PDT (06:48 UTC on April 15).
Launch suffered a four-day delay from the original schedule, in order to allow time for additional pre-launch checkouts as well as improved weather conditions. This was the 24th launch of the year for SpaceX.
The launch vehicle’s booster returned to SpaceX’s landing zone four (LZ-4) approximately seven and a half minutes after launch. The payload fairing will be recovered from the ocean downrange by ship NRC Quest. This was the first Transporter mission to launch from Vandenberg, as well as the first Transporter mission to launch at night.
Falcon 9 booster B1063 made its tenth flight, the eighth booster to reach double digits. It previously lofted Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, DART, and seven Starlink missions. The second stage of the vehicle featured a new variant of the nozzle extension on the MVac engine. This new nozzle extension is optimized for cost and manufacturability at the expense of some efficiency and will be used on missions where Falcon 9’s full performance is not needed.
The second stage performed five burns throughout this mission. The first two brought the vehicle to a nearly circular orbit around 500 km in altitude to deploy most of the payloads starting about an hour after launch. Two more burns raised the orbit to around 680 km circular for the deployment of IMECE, two and a half hours after liftoff. One more deorbited the second stage.
LHA map for #Transporter-7 mission from VSFB SLC-4E NET 11 Apr 06:48 UTC, altern. 12 to 15 Apr based on issued NOTAM/NOTMARs. LZ-4 landing for booster 1063.10. Estimated fairing recovery position approx. 543km downrange. S2 reentry area in South Pacific. https://t.co/BpJZ15cY0J pic.twitter.com/lkTduqvXOs
— Raul (@Raul74Cz) April 10, 2023
The SpaceX launch to follow Transporter-7 is unclear as SpaceX prepares to launch three different vehicles next week. The first test flight of the new Starship launch vehicle could occur as soon as April 17 from the Starbase facility in Texas, a Falcon Heavy is preparing to launch the first Viasat-3 satellite and some co-passengers from LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center, and a Falcon 9 is expected to launch another set of Starlink satellites from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station this month.
This was the seventh dedicated rideshare mission organized by SpaceX and carried 51 payloads into orbit, some of which will be deployed later from the two space tugs that are on the mission. The payloads range in size from picosatellites of less than a kilogram that are only a few centimeters on a side to a Turkish earth observation satellite massing around 800 kg. The majority of the payloads will be deployed to a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) of approximately 500-kilometer altitude and 97.4-degree inclination.
The Transporter missions are intended to provide a consistent cadence of rideshare opportunities to popular orbits such as SSO. There are two more Transporter missions scheduled for 2023, with the next as soon as June and the following no earlier than (NET) October.
While some Transporter customers deal directly with SpaceX to get a ride for their spacecraft, most of the payloads are handled by launch integrators who buy ports on the payload stack and then assemble multiple customers into that space, launching either directly from the launch vehicle’s second stage or on board a separable deployer or space tug that will release payloads at a later time, possibly after adjusting the orbit.
On this flight, the launch integrators with ports on the payload stack included Exolaunch, handling 16 CubeSats and five microsatellites on the current mission. ISIL placed several of their customer CubeSats with Exolaunch and Momentus. SEOPS handled three microsatellites. Maverick Space Systems handled three CubeSats and three microsatellites.
D-Orbit had the ION-SCV-010 tug carrying five CubeSats and two hosted payloads, including EPICHyper-1, VCUB1, and Kepler 20 & 21.
Momentus had the Vigoride-VR6 tug carrying several CubeSats: LLITED A/B, REVELA, DISCO-1, VIREO, and IRIS-C. Also aboard are a new CubeSat deployer for Italy’s ARCA and a demonstration of the new roll-out Tape Spring Solar Array (TASSA) from Momentus.
The largest payload on Transporter-7 is the Earth observation (EO) satellite IMECE, the highest resolution imaging satellite designed and built in Turkey with 0.99 m panchromatic and 5 m multispectral capabilities. Designed by TÜBİTAK Space Technologies Research Institute (TÜBİTAK UZAY), it is one of several Turkish satellites on board. TÜBİTAK UZAY also had SSS-2B, a 3U CubeSat technology demonstrator. Another 3U CubeSat was KILICSAT from GUMUSH Aerospace and the University of Turkish Aeronautical Association, with an AIS receiver and amateur radio beacon. Plan S had its Connecta T2.1, a 6U CubeSat that includes an Internet of Things (IoT) payload and a Caiman multispectral camera from Dragonfly Aerospace.
The volume of CubeSats is usually given in units — “U” — of 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters. For example, a 6U CubeSat would measure 10 by 20 by 30 centimeters. The volume of PocketQubes is usually given in P units of 5 by 5 by 5 centimeters, so a 2P PocketQube is 5 by 5 by 10 centimeters.
Orbital Sidekick had the first two spacecraft in its constellation of high-resolution hyperspectral imaging satellites, GHOSt 1 & 2, with 8 m resolution and 500 spectral bands. The imaging technology has been tested in orbit with earlier payloads on the International Space Station and the smaller Aurora satellite that was launched on Transporter-2. The Astro Digital satellite bus and deployment with a Maverick dual satellite adapter were also demonstrated on Transporter-2 with SEAKR’s Mandrake 2 satellites.
The GHOSt microsatellites are approximately 90 kg each. Moving to a larger bus than the earlier Aurora satellite enabled using larger telescopes, as well as giving more power and higher throughput Ka-band radios. Onboard image processing using Nvidia hardware enables them to pick out data of interest and reduce the overall amount of data downloaded.
Currently, Orbital Sidekick’s commercial business is largely in the energy industry, where the company supports seven of the top 10 pipeline operators in North America with services such as pipeline leak detection. Orbital Sidekick also has contracts with the NRO and other government customers. Transporter-8 and Transporter-9 will each carry another pair of GHOSt satellites. This will fill Orbital Sidekick’s current authorization for six satellites, which the company intends to expand to 14.
Argentinian firm Satellogic will increase its constellation to 34 active satellites with four more on this flight. NewSat (or ÑuSat) 36-39 have 1 m resolution multispectral imaging and 25 m hyperspectral imaging.
AAC Clyde Space launched EPICHyper-1 for customer Wyvern Space, a 6U spacecraft with a hyperspectral imager. FACSAT-2, a 6U satellite for the Colombian Air Force, has a 5 m imaging payload and a spectrometer for detecting greenhouse gases. Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) had the 6U DEWASAT-2 with a 4.7 m multispectral imager. Kenya’s Taifa-1 is a 3U satellite developed by SayariLabs in collaboration with Endurosat that has a hyperspectral payload. Italy’s Arca Dynamics had the 3U Revela satellite with an EO payload to demonstrate image processing algorithms. VCUB1 from Brazil’s Visiona Tecnologia Espacial is a 6U spacecraft with a 3.5 m multispectral camera.
There is only one synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite on this Transporter mission. Umbra is expanding its constellation with Umbra-6, massing approximately 70 kg. Umbra now has an open data program monitoring several locations around the world.
Two operators of radio frequency (RF) detection/geolocation services continue to expand their constellations. Hawkeye 360 had the HAWK-7A/B/C trio of 30 kg microsatellites. Unseen Labs had BRO-9, a 6U CubeSat.
GHGSat had three more of its 15 kg microsatellites with methane sensors for greenhouse gas emissions detection, GHGSat-C6/7/8.
Norway’s NORSAT-TD, a 35 kg microsatellite, has a variety of payloads including an Automatic Identification System (AIS) for monitoring marine traffic, a VHF Data Exchange System (VDES) for two-way messaging with marine vessels, a laser communications payload, and a laser reflector to allow tracking of the satellite.
Spire had three LEMURs on board. LEMUR 2 ONREFLECTION is a 6U spacecraft built for King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) which has a hyperspectral camera and on-board processing capabilities, as well as a Spires GNSS-R payload to collect data on soil moisture. LEMUR 2 SPACEGUS is also known as Adler-2, a 6U spacecraft with several instruments for assessing the debris environment. LEMUR 2 ROMEO-N-LEO is a 3U satellite for Spire’s own constellation, which has GPS radio occultation (RO) functionality for gathering weather data, AIS for tracking maritime traffic, and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) for tracking aircraft.
Kepler Communications launched a pair of 6U satellites, Kepler 20 & 21, with Ku-band communications and data store-and-forward capabilities. These will expand Kepler’s current constellation and test payload technology for the next-generation satellites, which are planned to begin launching in the fall with two Pathfinder satellites. Kepler just announced a $92 million Series C funding round that will allow the build-out of its optical relay network next year.
Sateliot-0/Platform-3 is a 6U satellite built by Endurosat for Sateliot with a 5G IoT payload. Tomorrow.io had the 85 kg Tomorrow-R1 satellite with a weather radar payload.
Asteroid mining startup AstroForge had a 6U CubeSat, Brokkr-1, that will attempt to demonstrate vaporizing a sample of asteroid-like material and separating metals.
LLITED-A/B (Low-Latitude Ionosphere/Thermosphere Enhancements in Density), a pair of 1.5U CubeSats from NASA, will have their orbit lowered to 495 km by the Vigoride tug before beginning their mission to provide measurements of the ionosphere and thermosphere to study the Equatorial Ionization Anomaly (EIA) and Equatorial Temperature and Wind Anomaly (ETWA).
CIRBE, a 3U CubeSat from the University of Colorado Boulder, will take measurements for the study of radiation belt dynamics.
Stanford Student Space Initiative (Sapling Giganteum, 1U) and Cal Poly Pomona Bronco Space (Pleiades-Yearling, 1U) were back with new technology demonstrator CubeSats after having their previous spacecraft on the Transporter-6 flight get trapped in their deployers when the tug they were riding had a power failure. INSPIRE-Sat 7 is a French university project from LATMOS that includes an amateur radio payload. There is a 1U student satellite from Denmark, DISCO-1.
RoseyCubesat-1 from Orbital Solutions Monaco is a 1U satellite assembled by high school students. National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) in Taiwan has the 3U IRIS-C to verify the performance of a star tracker.
Hungarian 3U satellite VIREO is a technology demonstrator from C3S and AImotive.
Celestis had its Excelsior memorial spaceflight mission on board, with Spaceflight handling the flight arrangements. This payload was mounted to one of the adapter plates that connected multiple satellites onto a port, and stayed with the second stage of the launch vehicle.
Post launch updates
Some of the expected payloads did not end up on board this flight, including Alba Orbital’s Cluster 7 (MRC-100, Istanbul, ROM-2) and a demonstration satellite from CACI.
LS2F is an IoT satellite for Lacuna Space. “It’s About Time” is the first satellite from TrustPoint with a demonstration positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) payload. D-Orbit has not disclosed the identity of one of the satellites carried by their ION tug.
Transporter-6 Payloads Status
Of the 114 objects that SpaceX stated would be launching on January’s Transporter-6 mission, there are currently 99 shown in space-track.org’s satellite catalog. Space-track has names associated with 93 of them, and Celestrak has names for two more. Two of the unidentified objects would be Launcher’s Orbiter SN1 and Epic Aerospace’s LEO 1, with a third most likely being Endurosat’s Platform-2 CubeSat.
An FCC filing from the owner of RROCI says: “The first RROCI satellite launched on Transporter-6 on Jan. 3, 2023, but it was never deployed from the launch vehicle, so RROCI is not on orbit. It met its demise when the launch vehicle returned to earth.” A new satellite, RROCI-2, is scheduled to launch on Transporter-10 early next year.
Six payloads were stranded on Orbiter SN1 when it lost power. Four CubeSats for Astrocast seem to still be aboard an ION tug, and ZEUS-1 should still be aboard Vigoride-5.
This leaves several candidates for the last unidentified object in orbit, including Ukraine’s Polyitan HP-30, OrbAstro’s Guardian-Alpha, and ICEYE’s X-22. It seems at least two of those were not deployed from the launch vehicle.
(Lead image: Falcon 9 on the launch pad at SLC-4E ahead of the Tranche 0 Flight 1 mission. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)