A Russian Soyuz rocket launched a whopping 73 satellites into space this morning, sending the spacecraft into three different orbits around Earth. The satellites — ranging from tiny probes the size of a shoebox to a half-ton satellite the size of a car — rode together into space, arranged in a tall tower stacked on top of the rocket. It’s the most amount of satellites a Soyuz has ever put into space at one time.
This mission was essentially a rocket ride share, as the satellites belong to various companies and universities. The largest number of satellites on the mission belong to Planet — a San Francisco-based company looking to create a huge constellation of space probes that can constantly observe Earth. The company was able to pack 48 satellites on this trip, which may sound like a lot, but Planet’s hardware doesn’t take up too much room. The company’s signature vehicle is the Dove, measuring in at just a foot long and four inches wide. The tiny size allows Planet to fly a whole bunch of these satellites on single flights, usually as secondary payloads that hitch rides with other, larger satellites.
And that’s exactly how this flight worked, too. The main purpose of the mission was to get just one satellite into orbit, an Earth-observing probe called Kanopus-V-IK designed to spot forest fires from space. The largest satellite of the bunch, Kanopus-V-IK sat on top of the tower and was deployed first into its intended orbit. After that, the rocket then moved to a higher altitude to deploy 24 satellites. Once all those were sent off, the rocket moved back down to a lower altitude to drop the remaining 48 Planet satellites.
Rocket ride shares like this one are growing more common these days, as satellites grow smaller and take up less room on large, powerful rockets. In February, an Indian PSLV rocket launched a total of 104 satellites into orbit — 88 of which also belong to Planet. That mission marked the largest amount of satellites to launch on a single rocket, ever.