SpaceX's new ride-sharing launches to boost small-satellite industry

By Paul Brinkmann
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches a cargo Dragon spacecraft on a mission to deliver more than 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments to the International Space Station on July 25. Photo by Joe Marino-Bill Cantrell/UPI
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches a cargo Dragon spacecraft on a mission to deliver more than 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments to the International Space Station on July 25. Photo by Joe Marino-Bill Cantrell/UPI | License Photo

ORLANDO, Fla., Sept. 4 (UPI) -- SpaceX's plans for more frequent, regularly scheduled ride-sharing launches will unleash new growth in the small-satellite industry, leading to easier and cheaper rollouts for new communication networks, experts said.

SpaceX recently published a schedule of 30 rocket launches for small satellites in 2020 and 2021. Its customers can buy space on the missions for as low as $1 million, a previously unprecedented price to put a satellite into orbit.


Reserving an entire launch on the company's Falcon 9 rocket costs $62 million.

The small-satellite market is poised to generate $1 billion a year over the next decade, according to Northern Sky Research, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., and specializes in the satellite and space markets.

"What SpaceX is doing is great for the satellite industry," Leena Pivovarova, an analyst for Northern Sky, told UPI.


"It's definitely going to lead to expansion. It will also make the small-rocket market more competitive," she said. "Things will get a little more difficult for new launch companies trying to enter the market."

The new SpaceX schedule for small satellites is in addition to its regular missions to the International Space Station or for large customers like the U.S. military. The first date on the new schedule is in March, when a Falcon 9 rocket is to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but other launches will be in Florida, the company said.

One of the first customers for the new program, California-based Momentus, will be launching a satellite specifically designed to move other satellites around once they reach space. That launch is set for late 2020.

Momentus said it will provide "last mile" service for other satellites by helping them reach specific orbits. Its satellite shuttle service, or tugboat, is called Vigoride, and also is poised to support more frequent small-satellite deployments.

"We think the cost reduction for SpaceX launches is going to be fantastic, and it will stimulate all kinds of new business in space," said Joel Sercel, the Momentus chief technology officer.

He said the key to success is the regular schedule that businesses can count on.


Plans to launch thousands of new satellites have raised fears of potential problems, though, especially collisions and increased space trash.

SpaceX and the European Space Agency already had a recent close call. The space agency said the United States' collision alert system indicated a European weather satellite was at risk of colliding Monday with a Starlink satellite launched from Florida in May. The risk was 1 in 10,000, which exceeds industry standards, the agency said.

The agency issued a statement saying it had contacted SpaceX, and the space company had indicated it planned to to take no action. Starlink satellites, like many satellites, have the ability to fire thrusters to avoid collisions. Instead, the space agency moved its satellite to avoid the problem.

In a statement afterward, SpaceX acknowledged that it was aware of a problem, but blamed "a bug in our on-call paging system" that prevented a Starlink operator from seeing updates that had raised the probability to the 1 in 10,000 level.

"SpaceX is still investigating the issue and will implement corrective actions. However, had the Starlink operator seen the correspondence, we would have coordinated with ESA to determine best approach," a SpaceX statement said.

On Tuesday, the European agency called for new protocol to communicate and resolve similar problems.


"Today, this negotiation is done through exchanging emails -- an archaic process that is no longer viable as increasing numbers of satellites in space mean more space traffic," said Holger Krag, head of space safety at European agency.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is moving forward, noting that dedicated ride-share missions will not be delayed by trouble with another passenger's schedule. "If you are ready to fly during the scheduled launch period, you will fly," the SpaceX announcement said.

Customers who run into delays that prevents them from launching can book another launch with a 10 percent rebooking fee, SpaceX said.

SpaceX's ride-sharing launches and lower cost are partly a result of the company making its rockets reusable, Northern Sky's Pivovarova said.

She said SpaceX simply might launch its own satellites for its Starlink internet network if a scheduled launch doesn't have as many paying customers.

"Personally, I think it may take a while before they can achieve that kind of regular launch rhythm," Pivovarova said. "It could be that they are dropping their prices because they can afford to now, or because they see competition coming up from other rocket companies getting into the business."

Momentus has raised $34 million for its satellite shuttle. The company says its unique new technology uses water plasma as the propellant.


Gwynne Shotwell, the SpaceX president, said Momentus "will offer a strong complement to Falcon 9's capability to reliably and affordably launch payloads for small satellite operators."

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