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SpaceX launches a big carpool of 88 satellites to space

Elon Musk’s space company has launched nearly 900 satellites to space this year

Dozens of satellites launched to space on Tuesday in SpaceX’s second in-house “ride-share” mission from Florida, bringing the total number of orbital objects carried by Elon Musk’s space company this year to nearly 900. A reused Falcon 9 rocket launched 88 satellites total for the “Transporter-2” mission, including the first five for a new Pentagon agency and dozens more for various companies, countries, and schools.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 3:31PM ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida, marking the company’s 20th launch this year and the eighth flight for the rocket’s first stage booster. That booster returned to Earth about 10 minutes later at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, a pad of concrete that hasn’t been used for rocket landings since December; Falcon 9 boosters usually land on sea-faring drone ships.

A rare shot of Falcon 9’s first stage booster as it readies for a vertical landing.
GIF: SpaceX

Meanwhile, the carpool of 88 satellites was pushed toward a sun-synchronous, pole-to-pole Earth orbit by Falcon 9’s second-stage booster. Thirty-six tiny satellites were mounted on a new payload adapter built by Spaceflight, a company that books space for small satellites on rockets, alongside other satellites arranged by SpaceX.

This was mission number two for SpaceX’s cost-cutting SmallSat Rideshare Program, which offers tiny satellites rides to space for a starting price of $1 million. Cheaper launch services in the space industry have reinvigorated a market for simple shoebox-sized satellites that have long been forced to hitch rides on larger missions. SpaceX’s ride-share program taps into that growing small satellite market, where companies can offer services ranging from communications to Earth observation.

The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency (SDA) had five satellites aboard Transporter-2 that will test laser communications between one another in space as well as a separate experiment designed to test in-space data processing (a method that takes time-consuming ground terminals out of the equation). Those two tests support the agency’s goal of eventually communicating with ships and weapons systems faster than ever before. The SDA has two tranches of satellite networks slated to launch in the next few years.

Other objects on board included a cluster of satellites from geospatial analytics firm HawkEye 360 that will gather radio frequency data and another cluster from radio frequency reconnaissance firm Kleos that will “detect and geolocate maritime radio frequency transmissions” for commercial and government customers. Two nano-satellites from Tyvak, a satellite firm that offers governments optical and remote-sensing services from space, are also on board, though the company declined to say for which agency the satellites will be used.

Tyvak’s two nano-satellites sitting in a payload adapter ahead of SpaceX’s Transporter-2 mission.
Image: Handout / Tyvak

The Transporter-2 mission ups the total number of satellites launched by SpaceX since late January to nearly 900 — almost double what the entire world launched in any single year before 2020. The vast majority of those satellites are for SpaceX’s Starlink internet network that’s poised to continue growing throughout the year.

SpaceX first tried launching Transporter-2 on Tuesday but stopped the countdown clock 11 seconds before liftoff and postponed until Wednesday because a private helicopter entered airspace that was closed off by the Federal Aviation Administration for the mission. Musk called the FAA’s keep-out zone for pilots “unreasonably gigantic” in a tweet and blasted the agency’s regulations as “broken,” bluntly echoing the same long-held grievances from other space companies and lawmakers who see the FAA’s airspace rules as outdated and inefficient.

The president of the Air Line Pilots Association sided with Musk’s tweet, saying, “We agree that there is a better way and stand ready to work with [SpaceX, FAA], and others to support the safe integration of all national airspace users.” Lawmakers pressed the FAA’s space chief Wayne Monteith on the issue last month during a hearing. He said a new updated system managed by the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization chief operating officer should be ready for operational tests “in the next few months,” following years of development.