On Saturday, Nov. 11 SpaceX launched the Transporter-9 rideshare mission from launch complex SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB). The rocket lifted off at 10:49 AM PST (18:49 UTC).
Deployment of payloads from the second stage to a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) at an altitude of approximately 520 kilometers began almost an hour after launch, and lasted for about 30 minutes. There were 89 deployment events from Falcon 9 releasing 90 spacecraft, some of which are orbital transfer vehicles (OTVs) carrying an additional 23 satellites for later deployment. SpaceX was able to immediately confirm successful deployment for 85 of those 89. The owners for two of those four unconfirmed deployments have announced on social media that they received signals from the satellites.
The booster used for this flight was B1071-12, the same booster used for the previous Transporter flight. It has also launched NROL-87, NROL-85, SARah-1, SWOT, and six Starlink missions. After stage separation, the booster returned to land on LZ-4 at VSFB. The second stage, which had the shorter version of the MVac nozzle, conducted two burns to reach the payload deployment orbit, then a third burn to deorbit the stage when the mission was complete. Support ship GO Beyond will recover the payload fairing halves downrange in the Pacific Ocean.
This was the 82nd Falcon mission of the year for SpaceX. The company is continuing to launch at a rapid pace with this being the third of four flights scheduled in less than a week. The next flight will launch a pair of O3B mPOWER satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Sunday, Nov. 12. Another flight from VSFB at the end of November will also carry some rideshare satellites along with its primary payload of an Earth observation satellite for the South Korean government.
LHA map for #Transporter-9 mission from VSFB SLC-4E NET 11 Nov 18:49 UTC, altern. 12 to 15 Nov based on issued NOTAM/NOTMARs. LZ-4 landing for B1071.12. Estimated fairing recovery position approx. 551km downrange. Stage2 debris reentry south of Cape Town. https://t.co/dG6yDqlaep pic.twitter.com/XSDxJUHgri
— Raul (@Raul74Cz) November 10, 2023
This was the ninth dedicated rideshare mission organized by SpaceX. The Transporter flights provide a consistent cadence of rideshare opportunities to the popular SSO destination, with several flights per year. Beginning in 2024 these will be joined by the Bandwagon missions to a mid-inclination orbit.
Payloads range in size from picosatellites of less than a kilogram that are only a few centimeters on a side to satellites massing a couple hundred kilograms. There are a wide variety of CubeSat sizes being launched. The larger 16U size is becoming more common now, with at least five of them on board this mission from several manufacturers. There is also an unusual 4U size built by Spire.
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.
While some rideshare customers deal directly with SpaceX to launch 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, 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.
Some of the launch integrators for this flight are Exolaunch supporting 35 satellites including the deployment of 28 CubeSats, Maverick Space handling three CubeSats, SEOPS handling three CubeSats, and Momentus handling four CubeSats. There are three orbital transfer vehicles (OTV) from D-Orbit, Impulse Space, and Exotrail which will release more satellites at later dates.
D-Orbit is back with its ION SCV013 “Ultimate Hugo” OTV. The spacecraft will be carrying 15 CubeSats and 6 PocketQubes for later deployment, as well as several hosted payloads. One of the hosted payloads is the “Stars of Calm” space memorial flight for New Zealand’s StardustMe.
Exotrail, based in France, is debuting a new OTV. SpaceVan 001 uses Exotrail’s ExoMG electric propulsion system and appears to be based on the Nanoavionics MP42 satellite bus.
Another new OTV comes from Impulse Space, a company founded by Tom Mueller, former head of propulsion at SpaceX.
Impulse Space was formed to provide in-space logistics services and reduce the cost of getting to higher energy orbits. In the future that could include high-energy kick stages to move payloads between orbits and services such as debris removal. The first step toward those goals is the Mira OTV.
Mira is designed with the propellant tanks stacked in the center of the vehicle with a pair of payload attachment points on either side. This arrangement helps optimize the total impulse provided by the vehicle.
Mira uses Impulse Space’s Saiph thrusters for propulsion. Saiph generates 22 newtons (five pounds-force) of thrust, using ethane and nitrous oxide propellants lit by a spark igniter. These propellants are relatively safe to work with and can easily be kept in the needed temperature range while in space. The ethane fuel is also used for a reaction control system of 16 cold gas thrusters.
The eight Saiph thrusters on this vehicle are arranged in four pairs and will be used to demonstrate providing high thrust for missions such as setting a reentry capsule on a path to hit its landing ellipse on the ground. The arrangement also gives redundancy if a thruster should fail. The number of thrusters could be reduced to four in the future for missions not needing that level of performance.
Almost all of the Mira vehicle is built in-house, including the thrusters, propellant tanks, flight computers, and engine controllers. The current generation of avionics is designed to work in LEO. For future missions going to GEO and farther the avionics will be upgraded for more radiation tolerance.
Mira’s first mission is intended to demonstrate high delta-V (change in orbital velocity) capability while performing maneuvers that would be done for customers such as plane changes and LTAN changes (changing the time that the vehicle crosses the equator in its orbit.)
Mira will deploy the “Time We’ll Tell” satellite for TrustPoint, which features a compact Position, Navigation, and Time (PNT) demonstration payload to deliver C-Band global time and positioning services from LEO independent of the GPS system.
There are a variety of communications satellites on the flight.
Kepler Communication has AETHER 1 & 2, two pathfinder satellites to test technology for its upcoming optical communications relay network. Jacobs is launching two 3U satellites built by Spire, Mango 2a and 2b, to demonstrate a software-defined radio that can be used for both inter-satellite and space-to-ground communications, as well as a chip-scale atomic clock to support synchronization between the satellites and geolocation. Turkey’s Plan-S has Connecta T3.1 & T3.2, a pair of 3U spacecraft to demonstrate inter-satellite links.
OQ Technologies expands its IoT constellation with Tiger-5 and -6, a pair of 6U satellites built by Danish company Space Inventor. hiSky is launching Ella 1, the first 4U CubeSat built by Spire, designed to showcase the capabilities of hiSky’s Smartellite IoT ground network to switch between satellites in different orbits. DJIBOUTI-1A (1U), a collaboration between engineers in Djibouti and the University of Montpellier, will collect data from climatological stations. Malaysia’s SpaceIn has SpaceANT-D (1P) to demonstrate an IoT payload. Apogeo Space has nine PICo-IoT (.3U) satellites for IoT service. The stack of nine satellites fits in a 3U deployer slot.
Turkey’s Hello Space is launching for the second time this year with Hello Test 1 & 2, a pair of 2P satellites for IoT communications. One interesting aspect of this mission is that they appear to be using an adapter to launch PocketQubes from a CubeSat dispenser.
The Swedish satellite Ymir-1 (3U) for the AOS partnership between AAC Clyde Space, Saab, and Orbcomm was built by AAC Clype Space with a VHF Data Exchange System (VDES) payload from Saab for maritime communications.
Taiwan’s Foxconn has two 6U XL demonstration satellites, PEARL 1C, and PEARL 1H, built in collaboration with National Central University. PEARL 1C has a Ka-band communications payload and a probe for ionospheric plasma measurement. PEARL 1H has a broadband communication experiment with a phased array antenna.
There are a large number of Earth observation satellites for optical imaging, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging, radio frequency (RF) signal detection, and geolocation.
Planet has 37 imaging satellites on this flight. Flock 4q will refresh the SuperDove constellation with three dozen of the 3U spacecraft which have medium-resolution imaging payloads. The other spacecraft from Planet is Pelican-1, a demonstration of a new microsatellite design that will be used for high-resolution imaging. These Pelican satellites, which mass up to 160 kilograms, will operate at a very low altitude of under 400 kilometers. This new satellite bus will also be used for Planet’s upcoming Tanager hyperspectral imaging satellites.
GHGSat will increase the size of its constellation with a trio of 16U satellites built by Spire that will be used for monitoring greenhouse gas emissions. GHGsat C-9 (Juba) & C-11 (Elliot) will detect methane emissions, while GHGSat C-10 (Vanguard) will detect carbon dioxide emissions. In August, GHGSat ordered four more of the 16U satellites from Spire for deployment no earlier than 2024.
UK company Open Cosmos has MANTIS, a 12U satellite generating 100 watts of power with a 2.5m resolution imaging payload and onboard AI capabilities. Open Cosmos also built PLATERO (6U), a spacecraft with a multispectral camera and IoT capabilities that is funded by the government of the Andalusia region of Spain.
AAC Clyde Space has EPICHyper-3 (6U) with a hyperspectral payload that will deliver data for Canadian company Wyvern, which refers to the satellite as Wyvern-3. GenMat has its first satellite GENMAT-1, a 6U spacecraft built by Exobotics, with a hyperspectral imager for mineralogical data acquisition.
South Korean company Nara Space has Observer-1A (16U) with a multi-spectral imaging payload that captures seven bands in the 450-900 nanometer range. French company ProtoMéthée has ProtoMéthée-1, a 16U satellite built by Nanoavionics with a MultiScape200 multispectral camera from Simera Sense. French company Aerospacelab has the 120-kilogram SPIP (multiSPectral Imagery Prototype) satellite which will demonstrate new Earth observation payloads.
Poland’s KP Labs has Intuition 1 (6U) equipped with a hyperspectral camera and on-board processing payloads. KP Labs also has an Antelope onboard computer that will run as a hosted payload on the D-Orbit ION vehicle.
Polish company SatRev has AMAN-1/STORK-7, a 3U satellite with a medium-resolution camera. This satellite will be testing perovskite solar cells, which are flexible and have the potential to be less costly than the solar cells currently used for spacecraft. AMAN-1 is Oman’s second attempt at putting its first satellite in orbit. The first AMAN was lost due to a failure of the Virgin Orbit rocket carrying it.
South Korea’s JINJUSat-1 is a 2U satellite with an imaging payload from Jinju City, Korea testing Laboratory, and Gyeongsang National University. KAFASAT (3U), from the Republic of Korea Air Force Academy, has an imaging payload. Alba Orbital has UNICORN-2J and -2K (both 3P), adding to their constellation of picosats that monitors artificial light at night on Earth.
Two SAR constellations continue to grow with more spacecraft on this flight. Finnish firm ICEYE continues to expand its constellation with four more Generation 3 compact SAR microsatellites, ICEYE 31//32/34/35, each with a mass of around 90 kilograms. Umbra is launching a pair of 83-kilogram microsatellites for its SAR constellation, Umbra 07 & 08.
There are several spacecraft on the flight for radio frequency (RF) signal detection.
SNC has the Vindlér satellite constellation, four Spire-built 6U satellites to detect and geolocate RF signals. French company Unseenlabs, which specializes in RF signal detection and geolocation, has two satellites on board, BRO-10 and -11. Based on the size of the deployers containing them, BRO-11 is likely 6U but BRO-10 could be a larger CubeSat. Spire has its LEMUR 2 NANAZ (3U) satellite, which will show Spire’s capability to track and gather information from terrestrial and space-based signals emitted by LEO constellations providing broadband internet services, extending signal collection up to 30GHz with enhanced capabilities.
The US Air Force Academy continues its FalconSAT program of experimental satellites with the FalconSAT-X microsatellite.
Japanese research institute RIKEN, with Mitsui Bussan Aerospace, has NinjaSat, a 6U spacecraft built by Nanoavionics to observe bright X-ray sources.
Outpost has its Mission 2 “Debug As You Go” spacecraft (3U) that will test Outpost’s core bus technology, as well as hosting payloads for NASA Langley (a small cool gas generator in support of NASA’s inflatable heat shield technology) and ETH Zurich (a GPS system).
Odyssey SpaceWorks has OSW Cazorla (3U) containing two laboratory modules. The first module for Tufts University will measure the growth of insect protein cells in microgravity. The second module for Physical Synthesis has a digital synthesizer thta will convert LEO physical conditions to sound that can be transmitted back to Earth.
Rogue Space Systems has Barry-1 (3U), a demonstration satellite that will test the ability of Rogue’s onboard computer to aggregate data from multiple sensors and process it in real-time. Barry-1 will also be testing propellantless IVO Quantum Drives. Internet Think Tank has OMNI-LER1 (6U) to demonstrate blockchain transactions in low Earth orbit (LEO). Cryptosat has Crypto3 (3U) for blockchain applications. Picacho is a 1U demonstration satellite from Lunasonde that will measure the power spectral density of low-frequency radio signals in the ionosphere.
Slovakian company SpaceManic has Veronika (1U) with an amateur radio payload. HERON Mk. II (3U), the first satellite from the University of Toronto Aerospace Team, is an educational mission to gain experience with operating an amateur radio payload. HADES-D (1.5P) from Spain’s AMSAT EA carries an amateur radio payload. Romania’s ROMSpace, high school students from the International Computer High School of Bucharest, has the ROM-3 (1.5P) satellite with an amateur radio payload and low resolution imager. Carnegie Mellon University has TARTAN-ARTIBEUS 2 (1P), demonstrating edge processing.
Other payloads on board include IRIS C2 (possibly from Satoro Taiwan), OrbAstro PC1, OrbAstro TR1, and Platform 5 (possibly from Endurosat). This list is currently one short of the total given by SpaceX, with one of the payloads aboard the OTVs missing.
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.
(Lead Image: Falcon 9 lifts off from SLC-4E for the Transporter 9 mission. Credit: SpaceX)