SpaceX launches record batch of satellites in first in-house rideshare mission

SpaceX launched a batch of 143 spacecraft to space from Florida on Sunday morning under the company’s new cost-cutting SmallSat Rideshare Program, breaking the record for the most satellites lofted into space on a single launch.

The Transporter-1 mission kicks off a potentially lucrative business line for SpaceX, which unveiled in 2019 its SmallSat Rideshare Program, essentially a carpool for dozens of satellites of different shapes and sizes. The program offers relatively cheap access to space for small satellite companies starting at $1 million for the first 485 pounds.

Much like a rideshare Uber, a company’s small satellite can hitch a ride to space with other spacecraft instead of buying an entire rocket at a much higher price.

After scrubbing an initial launch attempt on Saturday due to bad weather, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off 24 hours later from its Cape Canaveral Space Force Station launch pad at 10AM ET, sending a mix of shoebox-sized CubeSats and much heavier microsatellites to a 326-mile-high polar orbit — an unusual trajectory for a Florida launch site. SpaceX launched its first polar mission from Florida in August last year.

The launch, SpaceX’s third so far this year, marks the most satellites carried to space on a single rocket, a record previously held by an Indian satellite launch in 2017 carrying 104 satellites. The 143 spacecraft aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 include 48 Earth imaging satellites dubbed SuperDoves from Planet, 17 tiny communications satellites for Toronto-based Kepler, and 30 small satellites for the US and Europe packaged by Berlin, Germany-based Exolaunch.

Also aboard the flight are small capsules of human ashes arranged by Celestis, a spaceflight memorial company. Ten Starlink satellites are also hitching a ride, inching SpaceX toward the 1,000 mark for the number of active satellites in space supporting its broadband internet constellation.

DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D agency, pulled out from the rideshare mission earlier this month after its two 187-pound satellites were damaged during launch processing in Cape Canaveral.

The Transporter-1 mission, coming just four days after SpaceX launched 60 of its Starlink satellites to space, keeps pace with what’s set to be a remarkably eventful year in orbit as SpaceX, OneWeb and other companies race to build vast constellations of internet-beaming satellites. In the past 16 days, SpaceX has launched more satellites to space than what the entire world launched in any year before 2013, according to data compiled by Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer and expert satellite tracker.

Rideshare missions on larger rockets appeal to a growing demand for affordable launch services from small satellite companies, ramping up competition with companies like Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit with smaller rockets tailored for dedicated small satellite launches.

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