In February SpaceX launched a website where companies can book Falcon 9 rocket flights through its SmallSat Rideshare Program. The Falcon 9 is one of the most technologically advanced rockets in the world, capable of safely transporting astronauts to the International Space Station, and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond. Falcon 9 is the world's first-reusable orbital-class rocket. Its first-stage booster returns from space to land vertically on autonomous drone ships at sea.
The SmallSat Rideshare Program allows companies to launch small satellites to space destinations for as low as $1 million, by sharing spacecraft with a larger payload. A $1 million price tag is quite cheap for a satellite deployment, a rocket flight can cost up to $60 million. The Rideshare program gives companies with a smaller budget a much affordable option to launch small payloads into orbit ranging up to 200 kilograms (440 lbs), adding per kilogram to the cost if the satellite is a bit heavier. “$1M for 200 kg to SSO [Sun-Synchronous Orbit] with additional mass at $5k / kg,” SpaceX’s website details.
The program allows essentially anyone with the right technology and budget to launch anything into space. A program like this can benefit companies that want to test a new technology in space destinations. It can also benefit researchers who seek to conduct a science experiment in micro-gravity, and universities that are working on a satellite manufacturing project.
Applications for the program opened up on February 5th this year. Today, June 17, SpaceX announced that ever since it launched its Rideshare program, over 100 spacecraft/satellites are scheduled for deployment. “More than 100 spacecraft have been signed up to fly on Falcon 9 since we launched the rideshare program. Small satellite operators can book their ride to orbit online,” the company shared via Twitter.
More than 100 spacecraft have been signed up to fly on Falcon 9 since we launched the rideshare program. Small satellite operators can book their ride to orbit online → https://t.co/hyMYK3v29p https://t.co/HYGfD333ix— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 18, 2020
Companies can easily book a Falcon 9 rocket flight by paying with a credit card via SpaceX’s website. Customers fill out information, select a target launch date, plus where they aim to launch their craft. The destinations offered through SpaceX’s Rideshare portal are small satellite deployment to: Sun-Synchronous Orbit, Low Earth Orbit, or Polar Orbit. The customer inputs the total mass of what will be launched atop the Falcon 9's fairing to get an estimated cost for the mission. To book a flight, a $5,000 deposit is required, then three installments are due towards completing the full payment. Once that form is filled out, it asks the customer to select whether they need either a 15-inch or 24-inch port on the launch vehicle, which gives a perspective of how small the satellites must be. The 15-inch port can support a mass of 454 kilograms (1000 lb) and the 24-inch port can support payload that weighs 831 kilograms (1,830 lb).
The use of ESPA (Expendable Secondary Port Adapter) ring technology reduces launch costs for the mission and enables rocket companies to get the most out of a rocket launch by deploying several small payloads in a single rocket flight. Basically, the small payloads are attached to rings so they could ride along during a flight with minimal impact to the original mission. Companies also have the option to use their custom ESPA adapters for satellites.
Other options when booking a flight include add-ons like: insurance for up to $2 million in value, also port adapters to fit the satellite in sizes that SpaceX utilizes, along with options for SpaceX teams to fuel the customers' satellite on-site if it has its own propulsion system.
SpaceX conducted its first Rideshare program mission on June 13th. A previously-flown Falcon 9 rocket deployed 58 Starlink satellites – the main payload, and a trio of hitchhiking Earth-imaging SkySat satellites for Planet Labs. The successful mission launched the 3 SkySat satellites into Sun-Synchronous Orbit. Read more: A previously-flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully deploys Starlink and Planet satellites
The next Rideshare mission will be during SpaceX’s upcoming Starlink launch. It will deploy a pair of BlackSky satellites for Spaceflight Inc. The next Starlink mission is expected to happen sometime next week [date pending].