SpaceX To Launch 71 Satellites Later This Year On Biggest Rideshare Of A U.S. Rocket

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch.
Bill Ingalls / NASA via AP Images

SpaceX is climbing to all sorts of heights.

The company is currently preparing for a momentous launch on August 7, which will see the first-ever re-use of a “Block 5” booster. As the Inquisitr recently reported, SpaceX will be delivering Indonesian satellite Merah Putih to geostationary orbit by using a previously-flown Falcon 9 “Block 5” booster known as B1046.

Another ambitious launch is coming up later this year, when SpaceX is slated to launch its largest-yet number of satellites on a single rocket ride, reports The Verge.

While the launch date hasn’t yet been announced, one thing is for certain: The company’s Falcon 9 rocket will be flying off into space with a huge payload of 71 spacecraft — the biggest satellite rideshare of any U.S. space vehicle.

The announcement was made today by Seattle company Spaceflight Industries, which coordinates the launch and has bought the entire Falcon 9 rocket to ferry satellites for a number of its clients.

The upcoming mission, dubbed “SSO-A: SmallSat Express,” has been in the making since 2015, when Spaceflight first acquired the Falcon 9 rocket, as reported at the time by Space News.

Since contracting a whole rocket to launch just one or a handful of small satellites is too costly for the manufacturer, Spaceflight works to find room for these spacecraft on already scheduled launches and arrange for them to hitch a ride as secondary payloads.

The company comes highly recommended and has even booked passage for 20 satellites in the most massive rocket rideshare to date — the 2017 launch of an Indian rocket known as the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which ferried 194 satellites into space.

This time, however, Spaceflight has chosen a different approach, deciding to first get a hold of a rocket and then fill it up with satellites destined to take off into space.

“As our inaugural dedicated rideshare mission, ‘SSO-A: SmallSat Express’ is a momentous milestone for Spaceflight,” said company president Curt Blake. “Launching more than 70 satellites from one launch vehicle is a challenging feat and our talented team has made many advances to make this historic launch a reality.”

The 71-satellite payload is made up of 56 CubeSats and 15 larger microsatellites, weighing from 11 pounds to 660 pounds and belonging to nearly 35 different organizations from 18 countries, including the United States, Australia, India, Thailand, South Korea, Canada, and several European states.

“Among the spacecraft onboard, 23 are from universities, 19 are imaging satellites, 23 are technology demonstrations, two are art exhibits, and one is from a high school,” stated Spaceflight officials, adding that three-quarters of the satellites to ride into space on the SSO-A mission are commercial payloads.

Falcon 9 will be taking its precious cargo into sun-synchronous low Earth orbit — a nearly polar orbit that will allow the satellites to pass over the same spot of our planet’s surface at the same time each day, explains The Verge.

But deploying these many satellites in one go is a tricky job that needs to be carefully orchestrated, notes Spaceflight.

“Probably the biggest technical challenge is sequencing all of the spacecraft off the payload stack,” Blake said in a statement, referring to the large structure mounted on top of the rocket from where each satellite will be jettisoned at exactly the right time.

“When you sequence that launch, you have to do it in a well thought out and organized way, so you don’t end up having spacecraft coming back, contacting each other, and causing space debris. We spent a lot of time modeling that and tinkering with the sequencing to make sure it all comes off without recontact,” explained Blake.

The big launch (literally) is set to take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with others to follow in the near future. According to the sources, Spaceflight will be launching a total of 97 satellites before the end of 2018 and has already scheduled 10 missions for next year.