SpaceX debuts new Bandwagon rideshare service

by Danny Lentz

On Sunday, April 7 SpaceX launched the Bandwagon-1 rideshare mission from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 7:16 PM EDT (23:16 UTC).

This flight carried 11 spacecraft for six customers, including a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite for South Korea. The payloads are heading for a 45.4 degree inclination, with at least one deployment orbit at around 590 kilometers in altitude. SpaceX has not released details of the second stage operations for this flight. It is possible there will also be a lower deployment altitude for some payloads.

The Falcon 9 booster used for this flight is B1073-14, which previously flew SES-22, ispace’s first HAKUTO-R, Amazonas-6, CRS-27, and nine Starlink missions.

For this mission the main engines cut off at T+2:14, at which time the Falcon 9’s first and second stages separated. The booster then flipped around and performed a boostback burn that put it on a trajectory back to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS), approximately nine miles south of the launch pad. Landing of the booster occurred at T+7:32.

SpaceX support ship Doug was tasked with recovering the payload fairing halves nearly 600 kilometers downrange in the Atlantic ocean. The second stage will reenter in the Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia.

This was the 35th Falcon mission of the year for SpaceX, and the fourth in April. The company is continuing to launch at a rapid pace with this being the third of three flights in three days. The next SpaceX flight is expected to be a Starlink launch from CCSFS on April 10. The next SpaceX rideshare flight will be Transporter 11 in July to Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).

Mission Overview

Bandwagon-1 will be the first SpaceX dedicated rideshare flight to a mid-inclination orbit, in this case 45 degrees, as opposed to the popular SSO destinations of the Transporter rideshare missions. This will provide another option for customers wanting to launch small satellites to a mid-inclination, which keeps the satellites over populated areas of the globe rather than providing the full global coverage of polar orbits. Flights to similar orbits have largely been serviced by Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle in recent years.

While the SpaceX rideshare website currently lists three Transporter flights per year through the end of 2027, there are only four Bandwagon flights shown so far. This also happens to be the number of satellites remaining to be launched for South Korea’s 425 Project constellation, one of which is aboard Bandwagon-1.

Render of SAR satellite for 425 Project. (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

In early December, SpaceX launched the first of five satellites for South Korea’s 425 Project, a constellation of military Earth observation satellites. While that first satellite, which is still being commissioned, had an optical imaging payload, the remaining four will use SAR imaging payloads. These radar satellites are able to obtain images in darkness or through clouds, complementing the abilities of optical imaging spacecraft.

Thales Alenia Space announced in December 2018 that it had signed two contracts with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Hansha Systems Corporation to develop high-resolution SAR satellites for Korea’s Agency for Defence Development. Thales Alenia is providing the SAR payloads and elements of the system for pointing the spacecraft. The SAR payload uses a deployable 5-meter antenna.

Bandwagon-1 is carrying the first of the 425 Project SAR satellites. The next of these satellites is expected to be aboard Bandwagon-2.

Japanese firm Institute for Q-shu Pioneers of Space, Inc. (iQPS) has QPS-SAR-7 TSUKUYOMI-II satellite, its third spacecraft to be launched in the past year. The two previous satellites, QPS-SAR-6 launched by SpaceX last June, and QPS-SAR-5 launched by Rocket Lab in December, are already providing commercial service with a maximum image resolution of 0.46 meters. iQPS also has two more retired satellites still on orbit, with QPS-SAR-2 nearing reentry. iQPS is working toward a constellation of 24 satellites by fiscal year 2027.

Render of QPS-SAR-7 satellite. (Credit: iQPS)

Capella Space has its Capella-14/Acadia-4 SAR satellite with a mass of around 160 kilograms. This will join three other Capella satellites in mid-inclination (44 to 53 degree) orbits. Capella has not had a satellite in a polar/SSO orbit since Capella-8 was reentered last September, but that should soon change with Acadia-5 scheduled on the next Transporter flight. Five of the six previous Capella spacecraft going to mid-inclination orbits launched with Rocket Lab.

Hawkeye 360 has Cluster-8 and Cluster-9, two trios of 30-kilogram microsatellites. These groups fly in formation to locate the source of radio-frequency (RF) transmissions on Earth. The latest iteration of these spacecraft has upgraded detection payloads and faster downlink transmitters to increase the amount of data collected.

Hawkeye 360 had obtained a permit last fall to launch these spacecraft from New Zealand, apparently switching the ride for these payloads from Rocket Lab to SpaceX. Clusters 8 and 9 will join the first seven clusters already in orbit, with Cluster 6 also at mid-inclination. They will be joined by more Hawkeye 360 satellites in the near future with Cluster 10 scheduled to fly on Transporter-11, Cluster 11 on Bandwagon-2, and Kestrel-0A, a test satellite in a new 8U form factor that will fly solo rather than in a cluster, on the Transporter 12 mission.

India’s Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) in collaboration with Satellogic has TSAT-1A, which was assembled at TASL’s Vemegal-based Assembly, Integration, and Testing (AIT) facility in Karnataka, India. Satellogic spacecraft are typically around 40 kg in mass and 0.25 cubic meters in volume, with multispectral imaging and a maximum image resolution of less than a meter per pixel. Satellogic signed an agreement with TASL in November 2023 to provide training, knowledge transfer, and setup of local assembly in India for imaging satellites. The two companies will also collaborate on the development of a new satellite design.

Centauri-6 is a 12U CubeSat built by Tyvak International for Australia’s Fleet Space Technologies. Fleet began by providing general Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity over its satellites but has since begun to focus more on supporting mineral exploration with satellite-connected seismic sensors. Fleet has also recently conducted trials of tactical voice communications for the Australian military. Three more Centauri satellites could launch later this year on the Transporter-12 mission.

Notes on previous SpaceX rideshare missions

Transporter-10: 51 objects are being tracked from this launch, with 21 of those still unidentified on Space-Track and 19 unidentified on Celestrak. Atomos has not yet separated their two spacecraft, which were joined together for launch. True Anomaly has lost contact with its two Jackal spacecraft.

Transporter-9: In late March the Mira vehicle from Impulse Space performed a burn of all eight thrusters for 75 seconds, raising the apogee by 150 kilometers.

(Lead Image: Falcon 9 launching Bandwagon-1 from LC-39A. Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF)

Related Articles