Transporter-5

SpaceX’s Transporter-5 mission launched several dozen payloads on its fifth dedicated rideshare mission May 25, illustrating the continued demand for such missions even as dedicated small launch vehicles emerge.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA at 2:35 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s booster, flying its eighth mission, landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight and a half minutes after liftoff.

The Transporter-5 mission carried 59 payloads, which SpaceX described as including satellites, orbital transfer vehicles and non-deploying hosted payloads. The latter included Nanoracks’ Outpost Mars Demo 1 experiment to test technologies for cutting into upper stages.

Among the satellites that Transporter-5 deployed into sun-synchronous orbit, rideshare aggregator Exolaunch accounted for 21 satellites, including satellites for Iceye, Satellogic and Spire. Smallsat manufacturer Terran Orbital flew satellites for several customers, such as Fleet, GeoOptics and NASA.

Other companies that had satellites on Transporter-5 are HawkEye 360, which flew another cluster of three radio-frequency intelligence satellites; GHGSat, which launched three satellites to monitor greenhouse gas emissions; and Umbra, which launched a synthetic aperture radar imaging satellite.

The mission carried several orbital transfer vehicles, including the first from Momentus. Its Vigoride-3 tug carried payloads for two customers, FOSSA Systems and Orbit NTNU, but is principally a technology demonstration of the tug itself and its propulsion system, which uses a technology called microwave electrothermal thruster (MET).

“Testing the MET on this first Vigoride flight is one of the important tasks that we plan to conduct as we continue to refine and improve its performance,” John Rood, chief executive of Momentus, said in a statement after the launch. The launch marked a culmination of not just technical development of the tug but also securing regulatory approvals after the government blocked two attempts to fly a Vigoride tug last year on other Transporter rideshare missions.

D-Orbit flew its own tug, an Ion Satellite Carrier mission called Infinite Blue, on Transporter-5. The tug will deploy two cubesat payloads and support two hosted payloads.

Spaceflight flew its Sherpa-AC vehicle on Transporter-5 as well. That version of Sherpa includes augmented attitude control capabilities that the company says makes it well-suited for flying hosted payloads. This vehicle carried two hosted payloads as well as three smallsats. SpaceX announced in March that it would sever ties with Spaceflight, but only after missions already manifested.

Transporter-5 was SpaceX’s fifth dedicated smallsat rideshare mission and the third this year, after Transporter-3 in January and Transporter-4 in April. The next rideshare mission, Transporter-6, is scheduled for October.

Demand for those missions remains strong. “SpaceX rideshare is getting fully booked,” said Max Haot, chief executive of Launcher, during a panel at Space Tech Expo here May 25. His company is developing its own orbital transfer vehicle, Orbiter, that will make its first flight on Transporter-6.

Launcher has booked Orbiter flights on several more Transporter missions in 2023, and he said those future Transporter missions are already filling up.

Orbital transfer vehicles can help bridge the gap, he said, between pure rideshare missions where payloads have little or no control on the orbit they’re placed in and dedicated smallsat launches like Rocket Lab’s Electron, which offers greater control but at a higher price. “We’ll be able to make SpaceX rideshare more useful.”

Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of global launch services at Rocket Lab, acknowledged that Electron costs more than a SpaceX rideshare, but took issue with Haot’s claim the difference was a factor of 10. Rocket Lab has charged up to $10 million for an Electron launch, in the case of the upcoming NASA CAPSTONE lunar cubesat mission, although some commercial launches are less expensive. SpaceX currently charges $1.1 million for 200 kilograms of rideshare payload.

“They are more expensive because we are offering a service that delivers the payloads exactly where they want to go when they want to be there, and that’s where the customers will pay a premium,” he said on the panel. “There’s not a 10 times differential in price, though.”

Project Kuiper

Amazon continues to deliver on its roadmap for Project Kuiper, a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite system designed to provide fast, affordable broadband to unserved and underserved communities around the world. Amazon say they are excited to announce they’ve secured up to 83 launches from three commercial space companies—ArianespaceBlue Origin, and United Launch Alliance (ULA)—to provide heavy-lift capacity for the program. These agreements mean they have enough capacity to carry into space the majority of the 3,236 satellites that make up their satellite constellation.

The three agreements include 38 launches on ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, 18 launches on Arianespace’s Ariane 6, and 12 launches on Blue Origin’s New Glenn, with options for 15 additional launches. Together, they represent the largest commercial procurement of space launch services in history, and their investments will support thousands of suppliers and highly skilled jobs in the space industry across the United States and Europe.

Preparing to delight customers around the world

As part of Amazon’s family of products and services, Project Kuiper is working to deliver high-speed, low-latency broadband service at an affordable price. The Kuiper System includes three key elements: advanced LEO satellites; small, affordable customer terminals; and a secure, resilient ground-based communications network.

Project Kuiper will leverage Amazon’s global logistics and operations footprint to provide excellent customer service and Amazon Web Services will provide networking and infrastructure to serve a diverse, global customer base. They’ll also apply Amazon’s experience producing low-cost devices and services like Echo and Kindle to deliver broadband service at an affordable, accessible price for customers.

Once deployed, the Kuiper System will serve individual households, as well as schools, hospitals, businesses, disaster relief efforts, government agencies, and other organizations operating in places without reliable broadband.

A global launch partnership

Launch partners will provide Amazon with heavy-lift launch services over a five-year period. Heavy-lift rockets offer the right combination of capacity, performance, and cost to get the constellation to space efficiently. Project Kuiper satellites will launch on Arianespace’s Ariane 6 rocket out of the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rockets out of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

“These launch agreements reflect our incredible belief in Project Kuiper, and we’re proud to be working with such an impressive lineup of partners to deliver on our mission,” said Amazon Senior Vice President Dave Limp, who oversees Amazon Devices & Services. “Securing launch capacity from multiple providers reduces scheduling risk and helps us secure competitive, long-term pricing that we can pass on to Project Kuiper customers as cost savings.”

The new agreements are in addition to the existing deal for nine launches on Atlas V vehicles from ULA to help deploy the Project Kuiper constellation, as well as two RS1 launches from ABL Space Systems to deploy the prototype KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 satellites.

Scalable technology to dispense satellites

Launch is just one piece of getting satellites safely into space. It also needs a system to securely deploy satellites at the correct altitudes for insertion into orbit. Amazon have completed an agreement with Switzerland-headquartered Beyond Gravity (formerly RUAG Space) to build the low-cost, versatile satellite dispensers that will deploy the Project Kuiper constellation. Beyond Gravity’s dispensers can easily scale up and down in capacity to fit the different rockets we’re using.

The Project Kuiper contract is the single-largest order in Beyond Gravity’s history. The company is doubling its production capacity as a result, opening a second production facility in Linköping, Sweden, where it will create dozens of jobs.

Bolstering the commercial space industry

These investments in Project Kuiper will also benefit the wider launch services industry, accelerating the pace of innovation, improving launch infrastructure, and supporting thousands of suppliers and highly skilled jobs in 49 U.S. states and 13 European countries.

For instance, in addition to launch services, the contract with ULA also covers production and launch infrastructure to support more launches, timed closer together, at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. That work includes a new, dedicated version of the Vulcan Launch Platform. ULA is also making investments in their Spaceflight Processing and Operations Center to deliver a second ULA facility capable of full vehicle processing, with two parallel “launch lanes” for high-cadence operations.

There are now more than 1,000 people working on the Project Kuiper program as they prepare to serve tens of millions of customers around the world.

AOM

The Arctic Observing Mission (AOM) pending approval, plans to send two satellites into highly elliptical orbits to maximize their view of northern regions while gathering data on meteorological conditions, greenhouse gases, air quality and space weather.

With Arctic aviation and maritime activity on the rise, Europe and Canada are taking the lead in developing weather satellites to gather global data and improve observation of the Earth’s northernmost latitudes.

A consortium led by OHB Sweden AB is developing a prototype for the European Space Agency’s Arctic Weather Satellite, a proposed constellation of 16 small satellites in polar orbit to gather weather data, under a 32.5 million euro ($34.8 million) European Space Agency contract awarded last year.

The prototype, scheduled to launch in 2024, will be equipped with a microwave radiometer being developed by AAC Omnisys. Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for the Arctic Weather Satellite ground segment.

The Arctic Weather Satellite mission “will greatly benefit the Arctic region and the globe with better weather predictions as the current systems do not provide the coverage and latency (to be implemented through a follow on constellation),” Bastiaan Lagaune, OHB Sweden space business engineer, told SpaceNews by email.

Geostationary weather satellites orbiting the equator provide ongoing observation of weather conditions at Earth’s mid-latitudes. To forecast weather conditions at higher latitudes, meteorologists wait for polar-orbiting satellites to circle the globe and relay observations.

In contrast, the Arctic Weather Satellite constellation “will ultimately provide an almost constant stream of temperature and humidity from every location on Earth, which will allow very short-range weather forecasting,” Lagaune added.

Frequent Arctic weather observations, for example, could benefit “the maritime sector which is planning to use the Northern Sea routes more and more with the changing Arctic sea conditions due to climate change,” Lagaune said. “Having accurate weather predictions in this harsh and remote environment are vital in ensuring safe and efficient transportation.”

The Canadian Space Agency, meanwhile, is working with Environment and Climate Change Canada and Natural Resources Canada on a two-year campaign to evaluate the cost and potential benefits of a proposed Arctic Observing Mission.

Preliminary plans call for the satellites to be equipped with spectrometers to track greenhouse gas emissions, a space weather sensor and a meteorological imager.

International partners could play important roles in the AOM program, said Ray Nassar, AOM principal investigator at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“Some possibilities include NASA or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contributing the space weather instrument suite,” Nassar said by email. “NOAA could potentially also contribute a spare flight model of the Advanced Baseline Imager.”

The Advanced Baseline Imager is the primary instrument on the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R Series.

Canada expects AOM to play an important role in an international constellation for weather, air quality and greenhouse gases.

“It would enhance these constellations with Northern observations in all of these three disciplines with free and open data for the international community,” Nassar said in a presentation at the American Meteorological Society annual meeting in January.

If the project wins Canadian government funding in 2025, AOM satellites could launch in the early 2030s.

A few years ago, NOAA also considered sending a weather satellite into a high-inclination Tundra orbit to enhance observation of northern latitudes. After evaluating the value of those observations against the program’s cost, though, NOAA opted to augment the data collected by its constellation of polar-orbiting satellites with observations made by international partners.

LEO

LEO satellite broadband connectivity’s demand has been ever increasing. As of 2020, there were one billion broadband subscriptions including Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable, or fiber-optic broadband services. Telecoms have been working to replace low-speed DSL broadband with fiber-optic broadband service. In 2020 alone, there were 42 million fiber-optic broadband net additions.

Cable network operators also continue to upgrade the networks to DOCSIS 3.1 to support Gigabit speed broadband access. Despite the advancements in different broadband technologies, only around half of total households in the world are connected to a type of fixed broadband. Among the households which are not connected to fixed broadband access, mobile network is the primary connectivity for internet access since many populations use internet via their mobile phones. Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband services using mobile networks and proprietary technologies have also been filling the broadband gap across different markets. Satellite has been an important technology to provide broadband in remote areas where it is challenging to deploy other terrestrial broadband networks.

The COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted the importance of broadband connectivity in both social and economic aspects of work, learning, communication, shopping, and healthcare. Although network operators have managed the traffic surge contributed by home broadband networks well, governments around the world have witnessed that populations without efficient connectivity faced challenges to navigate through the pandemic. While households in the areas with limited fixed infrastructure need to rely on mobile network to access internet, it should be noted that 8 percent of the world’s population is still outside the mobile internet coverage according to the GSA. There is clearly a digital divide across different markets which needs to be addressed.

The Role of Satellite Broadband

Internet access via satellite networks has been a crucial solution for use cases such as emergency response, maritime, aviation, and broadband access in remote areas. Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellite systems are the primary platform to provide broadband service, but only at a limited speed, between 5 Megabytes per second to 100 Megabytes per second, and with high latency, around 500 milliseconds, compared to other broadband platforms. Hardware and installation cost, usually above $300 is relatively high for consumers in emerging markets to get satellite broadband service. It is estimated that satellite market is providing around 3.5 million subscriptions worldwide as of today with the highest subscriber concentration in North America, followed by Europe.

Although satellite networks cover almost everywhere around the world, high cost of receiver hardware, low speed, and high latency have been a barrier for satellite broadband services to gain mass adoption. Recent Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite development by SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are expected to change market dynamics since shorter distance from Earth’s surface enables LEO satellites to support latency as low as 30 milliseconds.

What is the Outlook for LEO Satellite Broadband in 2022?

LEO satellite broadband is still a niche market. According to SpaceX, which launched LEO broadband service Starlink in late 2020, it has now achieved around a 90,000-user base. It recently gained license to operate StarLink service in Mexico and is now trying to secure license to operate in India, one of the markets with lowest fixed broadband penetration. OneWeb, another LEO platform which aims to enter broadband market, has launched over 300 satellites in late 2021 after securing agreement with AT&T to provide broadband connectivity for AT&T business customers. Amazon provide a new progress regarding Project Kuiper as they announced that they have secured up to 83 launches from three commercial space companies—ArianespaceBlue Origin, and United Launch Alliance (ULA)—to provide heavy-lift capacity for the program..

Although LEO platforms supports low latency, high terminal cost is possibly a key challenge to expanding the customer base. Considering majority of the market opportunity existing in emerging market, heavily subsidized terminal cost of $500 is beyond the reach of most consumers. Despite attempts by industry players to reduce terminal cost, the current adoption rate which needs only low hardware volume, terminal cost deduction cannot be done enough yet. Furthermore, LEO platforms face inevitable competition from terrestrial broadband platforms. Especially the expansion of LTE networks and future 5G roll outs in emerging markets will continue to compete against LEO broadband services. Due to mass adoption, terrestrial networks tend to achieve faster ecosystem development which brings wider choice of hardware and software and lower cost to develop cost per user.

LEO platforms will need other players coming into the market soon since competition is expected to increase adoption rate and create a force to lower the terminal cost. Considering current market dynamics, there is a potential to of LEO broadband market to grow in 2022, however at the limited pace. LEO broadband services are likely to gain subscriber base from both consumer and business segments in advanced markets. However, business and government user base are likely to be major drivers of LEO broadband market in emerging markets. Initial target of LEO platforms is not to replace wired broadband services, but to connect the unconnected population. To achieve their goal, the ability to support enough capacity in targeted market is crucial. As competition arrives, improvements in hardware cost and features are expected to speed up accelerating the adoption in the residential market in the next few years.