SpaceX launched the Transporter-8 rideshare mission on Monday, June 12, 2023, from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) in California. Falcon 9 is lofting 72 payloads of varying sizes and purposes into a Sun-synchronous orbit. The launch occurred at 2:35 PDT (21:35 UTC).
The booster landed at LZ-4, marking the 200th recovery of a Falcon booster, the 126th consecutive successful landing since SpaceX last lost a booster.
The booster for Transporter-8, B1071-9, is making its ninth flight after previously launching NROL-87, NROL-85, SARah-1, SWOT, and four Starlink missions. After separating from the second stage, the booster will return to land at Landing Zone 4, situated next to the launch site at VSFB.
The second stage will conduct two burns to reach the payload deployment orbit, followed by a third burn to deorbit the stage when the mission is complete. The satellite deployments will begin one hour into the mission and last for 25 minutes. Support ship GO Beyond will recover the payload fairing halves downrange in the Pacific Ocean.
This was the 40th Falcon mission of the year for SpaceX following a launch of Starlink satellites earlier in the day from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) in Florida. The next SpaceX launch is expected to carry the Satria communications satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit from CCSFS around June 19.
A successful landing resulted in the 200th recovery milestone, and another booster hitting a -10 flight designation, which occurs the moment a booster nails the landing.
This is the eighth dedicated rideshare mission organized by SpaceX. It is carrying 72 payloads into orbit, some of which will be deployed later from the two space tugs on the mission. The payloads range in size from picosatellites of less than a kilogram and measuring only a few centimeters on a side to satellites massing several hundred kilograms. The majority of the payloads will be deployed into a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) of approximately 525-kilometer altitude and 97.5-degree inclination.
The Transporter missions are intended to provide a consistent cadence of rideshare opportunities to popular orbits such as SSO. There is currently one more Transporter mission scheduled for 2023, launching no earlier than 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 space on the payload stack and then assemble multiple customers into that space. From there, the payloads will deploy either directly from the launch adapter or onboard a separable deployer or space tug that will release payloads at a later time, possibly after adjusting the orbit.
The payload stack for this launch includes the debut of SpaceX’s new plate architecture. Previously, the entire stack was composed of circular rings with four or six ports, with a single mounting hole on each port.
To launch multiple microsatellites from the same port, the customer or launch integrator had to use their own adapter plate that would provide a structure to hold the separation systems for the satellites.
With the new system, each tier of the payload stack has four or six flat plates that can each have mounting points for multiple satellites built in.
The launch integrators on this flight include Exolaunch, handling 32 satellites, and Maverick Space Systems, handling at least 6 satellites. Alba Orbital will also be handling six PocketQube satellites.
Launcher (now part of Vast) is flying its second space tug, Orbiter SN3, carrying four satellites and several hosted payloads.
Launcher’s first spacecraft, Orbiter SN1 on the Transporter 6 mission, lost power shortly after separating from the launch vehicle.
The hosted payloads on SN3 include Nightingale 1 for Cesium Astro — a Ka-band communications system, Remora for Millenium Space Systems — a guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) system, and a CubeSat deployer demonstration for TRL11.
One of the satellites on SN3 is the 38 kg Otter Pup from Starfish Space, which will demonstrate rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking (RPOD) technologies during its mission, including docking back with Orbiter SN3 after its initial release.
D-Orbit has the ION-SCV011 “Savvy Simon” orbital transfer vehicle, which is carrying multiple small satellites on board for later deployment. Alba Orbital’s satellites are on board the D-Orbit vehicle.
🛰️New Photon spacecraft complete! 🛰️
We’re celebrating the completion and shipping of a custom Photon for @VardaSpace to enable in-space pharmaceutical manufacturing.
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) May 9, 2023
Varda Space Industries, a new company focused on in-space manufacturing, is launching W-Series 1. This spacecraft has a Rocket Lab Photon satellite bus hosting a small manufacturing module and reentry capsule. This first mission will focus on small molecule formation in microgravity. The reentry capsule will land in Utah at the end of the mission with the produced material onboard. Varda also has a contract with the Air Force to evaluate using their capsules as a hypersonic testbed during reentry.
As is often the case with Transporter missions, there are a wide variety of Earth observation satellites onboard.
Orbital Sidekick is back with the GHOSt-3 satellite for their hyperspectral imaging constellation, after launching GHOSt-1 and -2 on the previous Transporter flight. In response to a query from NSF, CEO Dan Katz said “The commissioning process for our first two GHOSt satellites is going nominally, and we’ll be announcing when they’re operational shortly.” Orbital Sidekick currently plans to launch the next three GHOSt satellites on Transporter-9, although one may get moved to Transporter-10.
Sat Vu has the HOTSAT-1 thermal imaging microsatellite, which features a 3.5 m resolution mid-wave infrared imager with video capability.
Satellogic continues to expand its constellation with four more NewSat Mark V spacecraft. NewSat 40-43 have 1 m resolution multispectral and 25 m resolution hyperspectral imaging payloads.
Runner-1 is a 90 kg optical sub-meter resolution earth observation satellite made by Terran Orbital and ImageSat International for use by the Chilean government, which calls it FASat-Delta. Runner-1 can collect multi-spectral imaging and color video.
Spire has three 6U spacecraft on board, with one hosting the FOREST-2 thermal imaging payload for OroraTech. The other two Spire LEMUR satellites have AIS/ ADS-B/ GNSS-RO/ RF sensors.
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 measures 5 by 5 by 10 centimeters.
Turion Space has the 32 kg DROID.001 spacecraft with a space situational awareness imaging payload, based on a 42U satellite bus from NanoAvionics. Spain’s Satlantis has the 16U GEI-SAT Precursor with visible to near-infrared (VNIR) and short-wave infrared (SWIR) imaging, intended to identify methane emissions. Wyvern has another 6U spacecraft built by AAC Clyde Space for multispectral imaging.
India’s Azista BST Aerospace (ABA) is flying the 80 kg ABA First Runner satellite with panchromatic and multispectral optical imaging.
Muon Space has the 59 kg MuSat-1, primarily intended to demonstrate their avionics suite. Gregoire is a demonstration mission from Belgium’s Aerospacelab. Alba Orbital has UNICORN-2I, a 3P satellite to monitor artificial light at night.
iQPS has the QPS-SAR-6 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellite, also called AMATERU-III. This will be the third satellite in their constellation. The QPS-SAR-3 and -4 satellites were lost when a Japanese Epsilon launch vehicle failed to reach orbit in October 2022. iQPS was also listed as one of the more significant creditors in the bankruptcy filing of the now-defunct Virgin Orbit, as they had already paid $5 million towards the launch of QPS-SAR-5 that was planned for this year.
ICEYE has four more of their X-band SAR microsatellites on board.
Skykraft returns with their Block-3 launch of five satellites, after launching Block-2 on Transporter-6. These satellites are joined into a single unit for launch and then will separate from each other after they are released from the launch vehicle. Skykraft’s spacecraft are used to track aircraft and to extend air traffic control communications over a wider area by using satellites to augment the terrestrial communications network. They are conducting tests with aviation authorities in Australia and New Zealand.
There are multiple spacecraft focusing on Internet of Things (IoT) communications. OQ Technologies is adding Tiger-4, a 6U spacecraft, to their constellation. SpaceX subsidiary Swarm is adding a dozen new .25U SpaceBEEs to their constellation. FOSSA is launching several of their new FEROX spacecraft. Turkey’s Hello Space has the 1P Istanbul with an IoT payload. Argentina’s Innova Space has the MDQSAT-1C & -1D picosatellites on board.
There are several demonstration craft for the Department of Defense on the flight. Viasat’s XVI is a 12U satellite for the Air Force Research Lab that will demonstrate satellite communications using the military Link-16 tactical communications network. The US Special Operations Command has two Modular Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (MISR) experimental CubeSats.
DARPA has its first four Blackjack Aces satellites on the flight. These satellites will demonstrate the use of optical satellite links and on-orbit data processing for autonomous operations. Lockheed integrated the payloads onto the satellites and is handling launch preparations. The satellite buses are from Blue Canyon (Raytheon), the four optical terminals on each spacecraft are provided by SA Photonics (CACI), and the “Pit Boss” data processing units are from SEAKR (Raytheon).
Tomorrow.io is back with Tomorrow-R2 after launching Tomorrow-R1 on the last Transporter mission. These 85 kg microsatellites host weather radar payloads primarily monitoring precipitation.
The University of Stuttgart is launching EIVE (Exploratory In-Orbit Verification of an E/W-Band Satellite Communication Link), a 6U spacecraft to demonstrate high-frequency communications in the 71-76 gigahertz range.
Outpost Technologies Corporation has their Mission 0, a 3U spacecraft to demonstrate their new satellite bus.
URESAT-1 is a 1.5P spacecraft with an amateur radio payload from Spain’s URE and AMSAT-EA. MRC-100 from the Technical University of Budapest in Hungary, part of its “SMOG” series, is a 3P satellite for monitoring “electromagnetic pollution” generated by human activity on Earth. International Computing High School of Bucharest in Romania has the 1P satellite ROM-2 with an amateur radio payload and a two-megapixel camera. Ariel University has the 2P Satlla-2I educational spacecraft for testing concepts of free space optical communications.
Pleiades-Squared is a 1U demonstration CubeSat from Cal Poly Pomona’s Bronco Space. Colombia’s Platzi has the PlatziSat1 PocketQube, manufactured by FOSSA.
The 3U SpeiSat from the Italian Space Agency has a tiny “nanobook” of a prayer reading by Pope Francis and amateur radio transmissions of messages of hope.
Other satellites may be on board ION SCV011. Other spacecraft being deployed by Exolaunch include Ayris-1 & -2 and AII-DELTA.
This article will be updated after the launch as more payload information becomes available. Several of the companies involved do not release information before launch.
Post Launch Updates
ION-SCV011 turned out to be carrying 11 satellites, including the six PocketQubes in Alba Orbital’s deployers, in addition to several hosted payloads. Satellites not known before launch include Kelpie-2, a 3U spacecraft from AAC Clyde Space used to deliver AIS ship tracking data for their customer Orbcomm. D-Orbit also carried an undisclosed passenger that is likely ELO-4, a 6U satellite for Eutelsat with an IoT payload.
Gregoire from Belgium’s Aerospacelab is a 100 kg spacecraft that will test their new Versatile Satellite Platform bus with many components made in-house. Gregoire will test optical communications between the satellite and ground. Spire’s two LEMUR 2 satellites also have optical terminals for inter-satellite links. AII-Delta likely belongs to Aurora Insight (recently acquired by Maxar), who had earlier spacecraft named AII-Bravo and AII-Charlie with RF detection payloads.
FOSSASat’s FEROX satellites are an interesting new form factor, aggregating four flat satellites together in what appears to be a 6U CubeSat deployer. These satellites have IoT payloads and also carry experimental RF-sensing signals intelligence payloads.
Transporter-6 and Transporter-7 Updates
One more payload has been deployed from the Transporter-6 mission, with ZEUS-1 being released from the Vigoride-5 spacecraft in May. The Astrocast satellites aboard an ION tug have not yet appeared in tracking data.
Of the 51 payloads that SpaceX said would be on Transporter-7, 47 have been cataloged on Space-Track, and another, the Celestis mission, was hosted on the second stage of the Falcon 9. Space-Track has 40 of the objects in orbit identified, and Celestrak has two more. Those satellites not yet named on Space-Track or Celestrak include Brokkr-1/ORBASTRO-AF-1, TAIFA-1, Sateliot-0/Platform-3, Pleiades-Squared, NORSAT-TD, and EPICHyper-1/Wyvern-1. The satellite catalog shows one payload as ELO-3, a 6U satellite for Eutelsat, which could be the undisclosed payload that was carried by D-Orbit.
(Lead Image: Falcon 9 at SLC-4E ahead of the SWOT launch. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)