Wednesday, May 12, 2021

SpaceX launches record number of satellites from one rocket for US$1 million each

Satellites are now very small due to components taken directly from consumer electronics such as smartphones.

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A new world record has been set for the number of satellites sent into space on a single rocket.

The 143 payloads, of all shapes and sizes, rode to orbit on a SpaceX Falcon rocket that launched from Florida on Sunday.

The number beats the previous record of 104 satellites carried by an Indian rocket in 2017.

It’s further evidence of major structural changes taking place in space activity that are allowing many more companies to get involved.

This is the result of a revolution in robust, miniaturised, low-cost components, many taken directly from consumer electronics such as smartphones.

And with SpaceX offering to transport those small packages into orbit for just US$1 million a pop, the commercial opportunities are enormous.

San Francisco’s Planet company had the most satellites on the flight: 48. These were more of its SuperDove models which are the size of a shoebox. Many others from different companies were no bigger than a tea cup or a juice carton.

Some of the larger items released into orbit were holdall-sized, including several radar satellites which traditionally weighed several thousand kilos and cost many millions of dollars to launch, meaning that only national space agencies could afford them.

The Falcon carried the 143 satellites into a 500km-high orbit that runs from pole to pole. Some of the satellite missions require a different orbit, achieved with “space tugs” which tow them where needed. Sunday’s Falcon carried two such tugs.

However, for some missions a tailored ride is the only satisfactory solution, which is why there’s now a rush to produce smaller rockets that can perform dedicated flights.

Dan Hart, the CEO of Virgin Orbit, which has developed a small rocket that can be launched from under the wing of a Boeing 747, says space start-ups are becoming choosier.

“Companies used to want the cheapest way possible to get into space,” he told BBC News. “That’s rapidly changing. Many businesses with critical missions risk losing revenue if they have to wait on others or go into an unsuitable orbit. And that’s why you’re going to see people who will pay that little bit more to get to where they want to go when they absolutely need to go there.”

With more satellites going into orbit all the time, the issue of traffic management is now  becoming critical.

Collisions between satellites are rare, but a surprisingly large number will experience sudden, unexpected momentum changes, most probably the result of being hit by a piece of space junk.

Perhaps almost as importantly for future rocket flights, instead of being a one-off transporter, at the end of its mission this rocket landed perfectly in the sea and will be used again on future missions.

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