On July 17th, a Rocket Lab Electron rocket successfully placed seven smallsats into orbit for three different customers. This launch not only marked a significant achievement in satellite deployment but also moved the company closer to realizing its goal of reusing the Electron rocket’s booster.

The launch took place at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand‘s Mahia Peninsula at 9:27 p.m. Eastern Time. Originally scheduled for July 14th, the launch was delayed to allow the company to make final preparations for both launching the rocket and recovering the booster.

During the mission, the Electron rocket’s kick stage executed multiple burns to deploy the payloads into their respective orbits. The deployment sequence began with four NASA Starling 6U smallsats and two Spire 3U smallsats, which were placed into a 575-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. Subsequently, after two additional burns, the kick stage released Telesat’s LEO 3 satellite into a 1,000-kilometer orbit approximately an hour and 45 minutes after liftoff.

Among the payloads were four NASA Starling satellites that will test autonomous swarm operations, two Spire satellites intended to enhance the company’s weather data collection capabilities, and Telesat’s LEO 3 satellite, the largest spacecraft on the mission. LEO 3, built by the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory for Telesat, will aid the Canadian satellite operator in ongoing tests for its future Lightspeed constellation, which had previously been carried out by another prototype satellite nearing the end of its operational life.

The “Baby Come Back” mission presented Rocket Lab with an opportunity to test the viability of recovering and reusing the first smallsats stage of its Electron rocket. As part of their ongoing efforts, the company introduced several modifications to the rocket and adjusted its recovery approach. The initial plan to capture falling boosters mid-air was changed to allow them to land in the ocean. The mission’s webcast showed the retrieved booster on a ship shortly before the final satellite’s deployment.

Rocket Lab’s CEO, Peter Beck, expressed their progress towards reusability, stating that they are now closer than ever to achieving the first relaunch of a booster. Beck mentioned that the recovered booster was in excellent condition.

Beck did not provide a specific timeline for when reusability might be achieved. However, the company plans to reuse a Rutherford engine on an Electron launch later in the year. Wayne McIntosh, the team lead for Electron reusability at Rocket Lab, outlined a series of flight tests in the works before actual reuse is considered.

McIntosh stated that there will be incremental changes introduced in future launches, with a significant shift in the 45th flight. This launch dubbed the “golden child,” will involve sealing changes that will enable accurate vehicle disposition for reuse. The “Baby Come Back” mission marked the 39th flight of an Electron rocket.

Rocket Lab’s recent launch marked its seventh mission this year, encompassing six orbital launches and the launch of the suborbital variant named Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron (HASTE) from Virginia.

According to Peter Beck, the company’s CEO, Rocket Lab is sticking to its earlier projections of conducting up to 15 Electron launches in this year, a count that includes both orbital missions and HASTE flights. Beck acknowledged that the primary challenge in achieving this launch rate has been customer readiness. He mentioned that they anticipate a busy upcoming season as customers aim to finalize their preparations.

The shifts in the market, such as the bankruptcy of Virgin Orbit, have also influenced Rocket Lab’s operations. For instance, NorthStar Earth and Space, initially planning to launch their space situational awareness satellites with Virgin Orbit, switched to Rocket Lab and signed a contract to launch their first four satellites this autumn on an Electron rocket. Beck highlighted that Rocket Lab has observed increased interest from customers who had initially intended to launch with other providers. Notably, the NASA Starling satellites, originally slated for a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket launch, were eventually manifested for Rocket Lab’s mission.

Peter Beck noted that there has been a notable increase in defections from various emerging launch providers this year compared to previous years. Delays and concerns about early flight risks seem to be driving this shift. This trend indicates a degree of uncertainty and volatility within the industry as it continues to evolve.

Beck explained that in the early stages when all providers had only a few launches under their belts, the mission risk was relatively equal for everyone. However, as the industry matures and more launches are completed, the willingness to take on extra risk for potential cost savings diminishes. This is leading customers to opt for providers with proven track records and reliable services.

Rocket Lab has a launch planned for the end of the month, and the company intends to reveal further details about this upcoming mission in the near future.

The most recent satellite required by Intelsat to complete its C-band spectrum clearing and secure almost $5 billion in proceeds is performing well following its launch on August 3rd by a Falcon 9 rocket. Maxar Technologies, the manufacturer of the satellite named Galaxy-37/Horizons-4, reported that the satellite has successfully initiated communication with ground teams and efficiently deployed its solar arrays after separating from the rocket. The launch took place at 1:00 a.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

It is projected that the chemically powered spacecraft will take approximately three weeks to reach its designated orbital position at 127 degrees West. Jean-Luc Froeliger, Intelsat’s Senior Vice President of Space Systems, revealed that the satellite, weighing five metric tons, is expected to commence operational service by the end of September. This timeline accounts for final health assessments once the satellite reaches its designated geostationary orbit.

The satellite serves two primary purposes. The Galaxy-37 payload operates in C-band and caters to Intelsat’s broadcast clients across the continental United States. Meanwhile, the Horizons-4 payload is a joint venture with Japan’s JSAT International, providing Ku-band connectivity services over the Pacific Ocean and the United States.

Froeliger affirmed that the other six satellites launched by Intelsat within the past ten months, all aimed at transitioning broadcast clients to a narrower section of the C-band spectrum, are now in position and functioning smoothly. This transition facilitates the allocation of more frequencies for terrestrial 5G services across the United States.

With the successful deployment of Galaxy 37, Intelsat is making significant progress towards receiving a total of $4.9 billion from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as part of the C-band spectrum clearing process. This progress puts Intelsat on track to vacate the frequencies by December 5th.

In contrast, competitor SES has already completed all the necessary tasks for C-band clearing, aided by the launch of its final two replacement spacecraft by SpaceX in March. SES is expected to receive nearly $4 billion in spectrum-clearing proceeds from the FCC. However, a legal dispute persists between SES and Intelsat regarding the distribution of these funds.

To achieve its C-band clearing strategy, SES acquired a total of six satellites, including a ground spare. The expenses for these replacement satellites and associated costs are being reimbursed by the FCC. The FCC generated over $80 billion through the auctioning of the C-band spectrum to telecommunications companies like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

Unlike Intelsat’s previous replacement C-band satellites, Galaxy-37 was launched individually. As a result, SpaceX was able to position the satellite in a high-energy orbit, reducing the amount of fuel it needs to reach its intended orbit.

Jean-Luc Froeliger explained that this unique orbiting position should grant Galaxy-37 an additional three years of operational life compared to the 15-year design life assigned to the other C-band replacement satellites. It’s worth noting that many satellites often continue to function well beyond their initial design life. For instance, Galaxy-13, the satellite that Galaxy-37 is set to replace, was designed for a 15-year life span but has been operational for 20 years.

Notably, Galaxy-13, initially developed by Boeing, marked Intelsat’s first partnership involving a C-band/Ku-band hybrid satellite with JSAT, which contributed a payload named Horizon-1 to the spacecraft.

Additionally, the launch date of Galaxy-37 coincided with the 40th anniversary of Galaxy-1, which was ordered by a company that later merged with Intelsat.

Intelsat employs the Galaxy label for its satellites operating over North America, which primarily cater to media clients. Presently, the company possesses a fleet of over 50 satellites, of which 18 are under the Galaxy brand.

In the span of the last 10 months, Intelsat has successfully launched eight geostationary satellites, including the IS-40e communications satellite launched in April. This achievement is deemed a new milestone in the commercial satellite industry. Notably, the majority of these launches were facilitated by Falcon 9 rockets from SpaceX, highlighting the prominence of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 as a go-to choice for satellite launches.

Jean-Luc Froeliger highlighted that in 1997, Intelsat launched 10 satellites, a feat achieved six years before SpaceX initiated its first launch. However, during that period, Intelsat utilized a broader range of rockets, including Arianespace’s Ariane 4, Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 2, and Russia’s Proton. This historical context emphasizes the evolution of satellite launch technologies and providers over time.

Globalstar, the company responsible for Apple’s satellite-powered SOS application, reported a significant 50% rise in quarterly sales on August 3rd, attributed to promising growth in its business of connecting remote Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Approximately half of Globalstar’s $55 million revenue during the quarter ending on June 30th was generated by wholesale capacity service revenues, largely driven by Apple. Apple has been utilizing Globalstar’s satellites since November for its iPhone emergency messaging feature.

In addition, the company’s commercial IoT segment contributed $9 million to the revenue, marking a 33% increase compared to the same period last year. Globalstar aims to expand this IoT business by introducing two-way services by the end of 2023. Currently, the IoT services are unidirectional, offering tracking and monitoring functions in regions with poor or no terrestrial network coverage. The integration of two-way capabilities would empower customers with command and control functionalities.

Apple is supporting Globalstar in launching 17 new satellites to enhance its low Earth orbit fleet. In exchange, Apple will have access to 85% of the satellite capacity for its emergency messaging requirements. The remaining 15% of capacity could potentially accommodate a substantial increase in commercial IoT subscribers, as indicated by B. Riley analyst Mike Crawford.

According to CEO David Kagan, Globalstar is confident about securing a substantial portion of the remaining satellite capacity, especially following the implementation of its two-way module.

Kagan stated that half of the required infrastructure for the two-way IoT service has been deployed across Globalstar’s gateways. The company is preparing to initiate beta services for select clients later this year.

Furthermore, Globalstar confirmed that its upcoming next-generation satellites are progressing as scheduled for launch in 2025. These launches adhere to the original agreements with MDA and Rocket Lab. The satellites are currently entering a critical design review phase, indicating steady progress in their development.

The supply chain challenges that previously caused delays in producing Globalstar’s legacy Spot GPS and messaging devices have been resolved by mid-April, as reported by Kagan during the earnings call.

Despite a 4% decrease in Spot service revenues for the second quarter of 2023, Kagan anticipates a surge in subscriber numbers throughout this year. Adjusted EBITDA witnessed a substantial 86% increase, reaching $27 million.

The company has revised its revenue expectations for 2023, now projecting a range between $200 million and $230 million. This represents a growth of 35% to 55% compared to 2022. The earlier guidance had indicated total sales between $185 million and $230 million for 2023. These estimates exclude potential revenue from Globalstar’s spectrum leasing for terrestrial use.

During the earnings call, Globalstar’s Executive Chair, James Monroe, expressed optimism about the adoption of devices capable of utilizing the company’s Band 53 frequencies. Monroe expects these devices to reach hundreds of millions by the same time next year, as Globalstar continues discussions with terrestrial partners and regulatory authorities worldwide.

The launch of NASA’s TROPICS CubeSats via Rocket Lab’s Electron marked a significant milestone in the development of a constellation designed to monitor tropical storms. Here’s an overview of the key details:

  • Mission Name: Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS)
  • Launch Vehicle: Rocket Lab Electron
  • Launch Date and Time: May 7, 9 p.m. Eastern Time
  • Launch Site: Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand
  • Payload: Two TROPICS CubeSats
  • Mission Objective: TROPICS aims to monitor and study the development of tropical storms, specifically focusing on their precipitation and intensity. The constellation uses microwave radiometers on each CubeSat to gather temperature and water vapor data, which are essential for understanding storm dynamics.
  • Constellation Design: The TROPICS constellation comprises a total of four CubeSats. The launch of the first two satellites was followed by another launch of the remaining two satellites about two weeks later.
  • Orbital Parameters: The Electron rocket placed the TROPICS cubesats into a 550-kilometer orbit at an inclination of 32 degrees. The kick stage of the Electron, typically used for circularizing orbits, also performed the inclination change necessary for the mission.
  • Monitoring Capability: With four satellites operating together, the TROPICS constellation will be able to provide hourly updates on tropical storm development. This data is expected to be valuable for monitoring the formation and behavior of tropical weather systems, including hurricanes.

This launch comes after a previous attempt, during which the first satellites in the TROPICS constellation were lost due to a launch failure of a different rocket. The successful launch of the TROPICS CubeSats via the Electron demonstrates the resilience and determination of space agencies and companies to overcome setbacks and continue advancing scientific research and capabilities.

The TROPICS Cubesats constellation, designed to monitor tropical storms and improve our understanding of their development and intensity, holds significant potential for advancing weather forecasting capabilities. Here are additional key points about TROPICS and its journey:

  • Unique Data Collection: The TROPICS constellation gathers data in the microwave wavelength region of storms with hourly frequency. This data will provide insights into the fundamental processes driving tropical storms, leading to a better understanding of their behavior and aiding in more accurate track and intensity forecasts.
  • Improved Forecasting: By analyzing the data collected by TROPICS, scientists and meteorologists aim to enhance their ability to predict the paths and intensities of tropical storms, including hurricanes. This can have significant implications for disaster preparedness and response.
  • Launch Setback and Recovery: TROPICS originally planned to deploy a six-satellite constellation, but the first two satellites were lost due to the failure of an Astra Rocket 3.3 launch in June 2022. This setback prompted NASA to secure a new launch provider, Rocket Lab, to carry the remaining four satellites into orbit using the Electron rocket.
  • Revised Launch Plan: NASA selected Rocket Lab in November 2022 to launch the remaining TROPICS cubesats. The agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of a Dedicated Rideshare (VADR) contract facilitated this task order, valued at $12.99 million. The successful launch of the first two satellites via Rocket Lab’s Electron is a significant step forward in recovering from the initial launch failure.
  • Collaborative Effort: TROPICS is a collaborative effort involving organizations such as NASA, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Rocket Lab. The combination of expertise from these entities contributes to the success of the mission and its ability to provide valuable data for scientific research.
  • Future Possibilities: With a total of four satellites planned for the TROPICS constellation, the project is well-positioned to make significant contributions to the field of tropical storm research and forecasting. The data collected by TROPICS can be used to refine models and simulations, ultimately improving our understanding of these complex weather phenomena.

The successful launch of the TROPICS cubesats by Rocket Lab represents a triumph over challenges and setbacks, showcasing the resilience and determination of the space industry to advance scientific knowledge and technology.

The decision to move the TROPICS satellite launches from Virginia to New Zealand was driven by the need to align the launch schedule with the upcoming storm season. Here are some additional details about the decision and its implications:

  • Timeline and Launch Site: Rocket Lab announced on April 10 that it would change the launch site for the two TROPICS missions from Virginia to New Zealand. The decision was prompted by the timeline required to get the satellites into orbit for the storm season, which didn’t align with the schedule for launching from Virginia.
  • Mission Requirements: The change in the launch site did not impact the ability to meet the mission’s requirements, as both locations could fulfill the technical needs of the mission. NASA officials expressed their willingness to accommodate the change as long as the launch provider could meet the necessary mission criteria.
  • Cost and Logistics: According to Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck, the change in launch sites did not incur additional costs for NASA. While there were some logistical adjustments and paperwork involved in shifting the launch to New Zealand, they were minor and manageable. The TROPICS mission manager at the launch site had to deal with time zone differences to coordinate the launch activities.
  • Operational Timeline: Pending a successful second launch, NASA anticipates having the four-satellite TROPICS system operational by the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season in the summer. While the original plan was for a six-satellite constellation, having four satellites still allows TROPICS to meet its requirement of providing valuable data with revisit times slightly longer than initially planned.
  • Revisit Times: The decision to proceed with a four-satellite constellation instead of the originally intended six does lead to slightly longer revisit times between data collections. However, the TROPICS mission remains effective in achieving its objectives, including providing essential data for understanding tropical storm formation and intensification.

Ultimately, the change in launch sites for the TROPICS missions demonstrates the flexibility and adaptability of space missions to ensure they are best suited to meet their scientific goals and operational requirements.