SpaceX will deploy another batch of internet-beaming Starlink satellites over the weekend. This mission will be unique because it will be SpaceX’s first SmallSat Rideshare Program launch. The program is the first of its kind in the industry. It allows companies to book a Falcon 9 online to launch small satellites to space destinations for $1 million, by sharing the rocket with a larger payload during a mission. Booking an entire rocket flight can cost up to $60 million, the Rideshare program gives companies a much affordable option to launch small payloads into orbit – $1 million for 200 kilograms (kg) “with additional mass at $5k/kg,” SpaceX’s website details. SpaceX plans to deploy 58 Starlink satellites atop a previously-flown Falcon 9 rocket’s fairing, alongside 3 satellites that will hitch a ride. “Targeting Saturday, June 13 at 5:21 a.m. EDT for launch of 58 Starlink satellites and 3 Planet Labs spacecraft – the first SpaceX SmallSat Rideshare Program launch,” the company announced today. The rocket will liftoff from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Planet Labs’ SkySat satellites are Earth-imaging satellites, about the size of a washing machine, which take high-resolution photographs of Earth’s surface from space. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are about the size of a small office desk. Typically, SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites atop Falcon 9’s payload fairing.
Launch day is nearly here for SkySats 16-18! The sats will be hitching a ride on @SpaceX's Falcon 9 on June 13 - their 1st Starlink Rideshare Program launch. Check out our blog for info on these SkySats and how they’ll compliment our 15 already in orbit. https://t.co/oeas2gkYru pic.twitter.com/OSafVlACxm— Planet (@planetlabs) June 11, 2020
Planet already has 15 SkySats in orbit, it hopes to complete a constellation of 21 SkySats before the end of this year. The upcoming mission will deploy 3 satellites, then in July SpaceX will launch another 3 SkySats for the company. Planet Labs detailed in a press release: "SkySats 1-15 operate in Sun Synchronous Orbits, a specific type of Low Earth Orbit that results in the Earth’s surface always being illuminated by the Sun at the same angle when the satellite is capturing imagery. About half of the SkySats currently pass overhead in a morning crossing plane, while the other half moves in an afternoon crossing plane, so together they provide twice-daily coverage of select areas on a global scale. SkySats 16-21 will operate at a “mid-inclination” orbit of 53 degrees, complimenting the Sun Synchronous fleet, and will offer more targeted coverage and raw image capacity in key geographic regions."
Saturday’s mission will be conducted by a twice-flown Falcon 9 rocket booster. “The booster supporting this mission previously launched Dragon’s 19th and 20th resupply missions to the Space Station,” SpaceX announced via Twitter.
SpaceX is the first aerospace company in the world that is capable of landing orbital-class rockets from space. It recovers Falcon 9’s first-stage booster by conducting vertical landings on autonomous droneships at sea, to reuse it. If this weekend’s mission is successful, it will mark the 55th time SpaceX teams recover a rocket booster! Reusing a rocket’s first-stage significantly reduces the cost of spaceflight. SpaceX’s ultimate goal is to develop a reusable rocket. The Falcon 9 only has potential to be 80% reusable.
The mission will deploy 58 more Starlink satellites, adding on to the constellation of 480 Starlink satellites that are already in orbit. SpaceX aims to offer broadband internet worldwide and targets to roll-out service in Canada and Northern United States before this year ends. The Starlink constellation will consist of 12,000 internet-beaming satellites. Company officials stated 800 Starlink satellites will be needed to offer "moderate" coverage.