A few years ago, a company called Spaceflight had a wacky plan. The plan, in the words of CEO Curt Blake, was “Let’s buy a Falcon!”
Not, like, the bird of prey. Like the big SpaceX rocket that, similar to its avian namesake, swoops back down to Earth once it’s done its job. Buying the full capacity of such a big launcher is like booking out the town's largest, schmanciest bar: You really hope people will come to your party, and also that they'll pay their own tabs.
It was a little naive, Blake admits. But Spaceflight had a job to do, and a Falcon 9 seemed the way to do it. Spaceflight is a launch broker that, not unlike a travel agency, takes care of gritty takeoff details for satellite makers. The company wanted—needed—to launch a lot of small satellites. At the time, around 2015, there weren’t many other options. Russia had invaded Crimea, making missions from there more difficult. India, which now holds the record for most satellites launched in one go, hadn't yet launched “secondary payloads,” or a big ol' rocket rideshare, en masse. And smaller rockets, like Rocket Lab’s Electron, were just glimmers in their parents’ eyes.
Even before signing the contract with SpaceX, Spaceflight had lined up a bunch of customers, the final list of which included universities, artists, commercial Earth observers, and the military. Soon enough, SpaceX agreed to let the company stuff one of its rockets full of smallsats. Normally, a Falcon might tuck a few smallsats in as secondary payloads alongside a more impressive passenger, but they were never themselves the stars of the show. On the SmallSat Express, though, they were.
It was on Spaceflight to protect all those payloads on the trip up and deploy them safely in orbit. And after three years of post-contract planning, they did it: After some delays, a Falcon 9, which had already been to space twice, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base the morning of December 3.
But it wasn’t always pretty. Spaceflight had dreamed up a complicated mechanism, which looks like a giant steampunk spyglass, to protect and then deploy its satellites. When SpaceX engineers first saw it, they gave it a catchier name: Frankenstack.
Frankenstack might spawn children. According to consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology, 336 smallsats launched in 2017, six times as many as launched in 2012. Another consulting firm, Frost and Sullivan, forecasts that more than 11,000 small satellites might seek a launch between 2018 and 2030. Compared to the inflated costs and timelines of most space projects, these satellites can be built quickly and cheaply, and they're easy to improve as their hardware and software mature. They're also quite resilient by satellite standards—in that you can distribute capabilities across a constellation of them, rather than putting all your eggs in one exquisite basket. That's part of why the military is interested in them. As satellites get cheaper in all ways, space (and space data) become more accessible, not just to the government but also to high-school students.
That future's small satellites will have a few options: catching small, bespoke, and consequently more expensive rides; sharing a big ride with bigger satellites; or clown-carring on big fire-tubes. The clown-car approach—of which the SmallSat Express is an example—comes with complications. You have to coordinate schedules, deploy everybody without a smashup, then identify and track all those floating boxes. But sending up so many sats on one launch is like killing 64 birds with one stone.
Before the SmallSat Express could even leave the station, Spaceflight had to prove it could handle all of that. Starting with filling the seats, which wasn’t easy at first. “SpaceX—early on, they had a couple problems,” Blake says. (Read: two explosions.) “And that did put a bit of a damper on sales, I have to say.” But SpaceX’s launch cadence galloped back to normal, sans blowup, and ultimately 64 satellites from 34 operators rode the SmallSat Express.
To accommodate all the passengers, Spaceflight had to build “upper and lower free flyers” to hold most of the satellites and then send them shooting out into space. On Tuesday, when the cargo got to orbit, the free flyers flew off and, soon, satellites slid out of the upper one like Tie Fighters. Others staggered out of the lower free flyer, while a few flew from a payload carrier in the rocket’s second stage. Deploying all of them—one every five minutes or so—took hours, with customers tweeting "Mine's out!" updates into the evening.
The team at Spaceflight ran thousands of simulations, tweaking and tweaking, to make sure the satellite shoot-outs wouldn’t lead to collisions. They showed their work to both the FCC and the Air Force. That work appears to have been good: No one shouted that their satellite had crashed into another. Once all the payloads were out, the mayfly-mortality free flyers sprouted sails from their backs, adding drag, and drifted down into the atmosphere.
But the complexities didn’t end with deployment. All the payload operators had to find, identify, and make contact with their satellites. It’s not so simple ever, really, and definitely not when 60-plus satellites besides your own just blasted forth from the same spot. Imagine trying to follow and find out the names of all the people who get off a bus at the last stop. Before the launch, T.S. Kelso, who runs orbital-analysis site CelesTrak, expressed anxiety. “It remains unclear how prepared we are to track & ID passengers from the SSO-A launch in a timely fashion,” he tweeted. “I am still very concerned.” He later cited another launch of 31 objects, of which only 18 had been identified three and a half days in.
“We put our plan in front of all the regulators and in front of the Combined Space Operations Center,” Blake says, referring to the relevant part of the Air Force. “We wanted to get feedback. We’ve done everything we could think of.” The same day that Kelso tweeted, the Air Force squadron in charge of tracking did seem to subtweet his call to alarm: "We're working closely with all O/Os [owners and operators] to track & catalog the objects ASAP. Thanks to all O/Os for their cooperation, transparency & support for #spaceflightsafety."
That process looks like this: Spaceflight gives customers initial data about their orbit, which they use to try to make contact with the satellite as it passes over a ground station. They give resulting information about their satellite's orbit and ID to Spaceflight, and Spaceflight passes that word on to the Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC). The center analyzes that data along with its own to try to identify individual satellites. "The procedure to claim an object is somewhat informal," says Pekka Laurila, cofounder of ICEYE, an imaging company that launched a satellite aboard the SmallSat Express. It's a conversation with CSpOC in which Spaceflight's customers conclude that certain data blips represent their orbiting progeny, and share their data to back up their assertions. "Ultimately, it settles out that all the parties have claimed their satellites," he says. "It could easily take multiple days or weeks."
Others concur: It's not simple. “If you’re dropped off with a whole bunch of satellites, you can spend weeks not knowing where your satellite is,” says Dan Ceperley, CEO of LeoLabs, a private company that tracks objects in space. “It can take a long time to figure out who’s who, where you’re going.” Even if CSpOC knows the orbits of 64 new satellites, it doesn't necessarily know which is which.
It worked quickly for some companies. HawkEye 360, which launched three satellites to detect radio transmissions coming from Earth, caught its satellites by dinnertime in its DC-area offices.
The satellite company Planet, which has about 120 “Dove” satellites taking images of Earth, has dealt with big-flock launches before: From India, 88 of its craft took off on a flight with 104 satellites total. “Usually within the first handful of orbits, we’ll make contact with all the satellites,” says Mike Safyan, vice president of launch. Indeed, for the SmallSat Express, Planet had contacted its five satellites before bedtime.
Planet's was the “primary payload” here—even in these egalitarian launches, there are, of course, classes—and so garnered the honor of putting art on the outside of the rocket. “We went with an homage to the Space Invaders arcade game,” Safyan says. Planet’s payloads are painted on like pixelated conquerors. “It’s a little tongue-in-cheek,” Safyan explains, “Planet having the biggest satellite fleet.” (We get it. But does Planet remember that the aim of that game is to destroy the invaders?)
A less-invasive company called Audacy launched its very first satellite on the SmallSat Express as a test of their communications tech. As of Thursday, Audacy was still trying to identify and make contact with its satellite, separating it out from the many others nearby. "Since the placement of our ground station allows us only four passes per day, this was expected to take several days," CEO Ralph Ewig said on Tuesday. "A significant part of our mission to build and launch our own nanosatellite was to understand the communications roadblocks our customers face." Identification and pingback delays being some of them.
Leading up to the launch, Ewig was confident, but circumspect. Normally, if something goes wrong with a takeoff or a deployment, only a few satellites will be harmed. That's not nothing, but it is what space insurance is for.
So far so good, though. Since Tuesday night, a Twitter roll-call of satellite operators has shouted "Here!" "Here!" "Here!" Still, it'll take time for CSpOC, and some of the satellites' owners, to sort things out. And as thousands more satellites launch, crowding orbits and launch manifests, delineating what's mine and what's yours will only grow more complicated. In space, it's true: No one can hear you scream. But it's important that Earth, at least, can hear a satellite shout, talk back to it, and figure out who's where, doing what.