Featured image credit: SpaceX
(Subject to change)
April 11, 2023 – 06:48:25 UTC
April 10, 2023 – 23:48:25 PDT
Transporter-7, the seventh SpaceX dedicated small satellite rideshare mission
(What rocket company is launching it?)
(Who’s paying for this?)
Falcon 9 Block 5 B1063-10; 52.48-day turnaround
Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E),Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, USA
Where are the satellites going?
TBD, but presumbly to a circular ~550 km (~1,200 mi) Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) at ~97.5° inclination
Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?
Where will the first stage land?
Back on land, on Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4), at ~400 m (~1,300 ft) from the launch pad
Will they be attempting to recover the fairings?
The fairing halves will be recovered from the water ~543 km (~1,200 mi) downrange by NRC Quest
Are these fairings new?
How’s the weather looking?
This will be the:
– 217th Falcon 9 launch
– 151st Falcon 9 flight with a flight-proven booster
– 157th re-flight of a booster
– 23rd re-flight of a booster in 2023
– 185th booster landing
– 111th consecutive landing (a record)
– 24th launch for SpaceX in 2023
– 39th SpaceX launch from SLC-4E
– 57th orbital launch attempt of 2023
Where to watch
If available, an official livestream will be listed here
What’s This All Mean?
SpaceX is launching the Falcon 9 v1.2 Block 5 rocket to carry out the seventh dedicated mission of its Smallsat Rideshare Program: Transporter-7. Through this, the company aims to place in orbit a large number of spacecraft of different natures provided by an assortment of clients. The rocket will liftoff from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E), located at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, USA.
After stage separation, the booster will perform a burn to change its trajectory and return to where it came from. Following the reentry burn, the first stage will touch down onto Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4), close to the launch pad. As a primary goal, the launcher’s second stage will deploy the satellites and other vehicles into a Sun-synchronous orbit at approximately 550 km in altitude and 97.5° in inclination.
What Is Transporter-7?
To meet the demands of the New Space market, SpaceX developed the Smallsat Rideshare Program — more on it below — Transporter-7 being a part of it. This mission consists of a flight to a Sun-synchronous orbit, where many satellites and orbital transfer vehicles (OTVs, also called space tugs) will be deployed. Additionally, there are hosted payloads with a purpose of their own and dispensers from different providers.
This Transporter mission’s manifest is not entirely known at the time of writing. It is usually published only very close to the date of liftoff, with last-minute payload additions and stand-downs. However, sources report this mission will include OTVs from Momentus and D-Orbit. Other integration providers listed are Exolaunch, Maverick, and Alba Orbital. Many entities are providing payloads — considering both satellites and hosted ones — making it difficult thoroughly list them. Nevertheless, we will present below what is known so far.
Typically, this kind of mission implied waiting for a primary payload — a larger one — to be ready for launch. Smallsats would hitch a ride with the launcher booked for the bigger spacecraft. Consequently, these additional passengers had to make do with going into an imposed orbit whenever the large satellite was ready. These factors usually impact their on-orbit performance, an unavoidable due to the established launch practices. Moreover, the cost of these rides remained mostly prohibitive for small entities like startups or educational institutions.
Contrary to what was back then believed, SpaceX realized that lowering costs, offering more frequent launches, and attempting to loft spacecraft to more convenient orbits, the smallsat segment of the market could prosper.
Smallsat Rideshare Program
Thus, in 2019, the firm announced the offering of rideshare flights aboard its Falcon 9 for such customers, addressing their needs. These would come in two different ways: sharing the room inside the fairing on Starlink missions, or through dedicated rideshare missions named Transporter. Both options are part of the Smallsat Rideshare Program.
Leveraging Falcon 9’s mass to orbit capabilities, a rocket supporting a Transporter mission would see its payload volume subdivided. Interested customers could buy a portion of it as needed, for a much more affordable price. Furthermore, these missions would be regularly scheduled, allowing better in-advance planning, regarding launch date and destination orbit. In spite of this, any payload missing launch day could re-book, paying a small additional fee.
SpaceX offers Transporter launches to low-Earth orbit (LEO), polar LEO, and — its most popular ride — to SSO. In fact, mid-inclination launches have only taken place through Starlink flights, while all past Transporter missions have been to SSO. Revisiting the same spot on Earth’s surface always at the same time of the day — offered by this type of orbit — turns it into a preferred destination.
From the need for a particular product or service to arriving at the desired orbit and operating the spacecraft, many are involved in one of these missions. To avoid getting lost in the logistics of one of these missions, it can be thought of in a simplified manner as follows:
Customer and spacecraft manufacturers: those interested in having a payload in space and those who provide the platform, the instruments on board, or both (the payload itself).
Launch/integration service providers: those who broker rideshare flights, offer last-mile trips (via space tugs), care for meeting regulations, provide dispensers or separation systems, and so on.
Launch provider: SpaceX, responsible for the launch itself and correctly reaching the intended deployment orbit.
This structure will be reflected in a subsequent section of this article when payloads are listed and discussed.
Mechanical Interfaces — Plates
Apart from the logistics aspect, the company also designed specific hardware to integrate payloads. These need an interface to the launch vehicle, provided through rideshare plates, conceptually similar to ESPA rings. Each of these plates can be arranged in these configurations: square — four plates — or hexagon — six of them. The former allows for more available volume than the latter.
In turn, the volume corresponding to each of those can be subdivided, using a quarter of the plate, half of it, or full use. These portions enable unique payload accommodations — e.g., a CubeSat dispenser — or standard ports in three different diameters, as follows.
Volume Subdivision8 in (~20.3 cm)15 in (~38.1 cm)24 in (~61.0 cm)1/4 PlateYes––1/2 PlateYesYes–Full Plate–YesYesFull Plate XL––YesCombinations of volume and interfaces provided by SpaceX
Yet another position to integrate payloads in a rideshare is available at the top of the plate stack. This upper mount enables for spacecraft massing from 500 kg to 2,500 kg to be launched during a shared flight. If required, two of them can be placed side-by-side. In any case, because of the different disposition, a whole separate set of requirements need to be observed when flying as a cake topper.
MissionDate & TimeOrbitPadTransporter-12021-01-24
15:00 UTC~528 km x 97.5°SLC-40Transporter-22021-06-30
19:11 UTC~538 km x 97.5°SLC-40Transporter-32022-01-13
15:25 UTC~528 km x 97.5°SLC-40Transporter-42022-04-01
16:24 UTC~644 km x 97.5°
~503 km x 97.5°SLC-40Transporter-52022-05-25
18:35 UTC~528 km x 97.5°SLC-40Transporter-62023-01-03
14:56 UTC~525 km x 97.5°SLC-40
Payloads On Transporter-7
A list of the payloads SpaceX is sending to space on this Transporter mission, showing type and quantity is as follows. However, the exact numbers have yet to be officially made public. In any case, 36 separation events will take place from Falcon 9’s second stage.
OTVs: 2Deployers: 13Satellites: 46Hosted: 3
A more detailed description is presented here:
Based in the USA, this company offers vehicles capable of transporting satellites between orbits, i.e., space tugs. So far, the company has projected three increasingly more capable vehicles: Vigoride, Ardoride, and Fervoride. To this date, only Vigoride flew on two demonstration missions: Vigoride-3 did so on Transporter-5, while Vigoride-5 on Transpoter-6. This time is Vigoride-6’s (VR-6) turn.
This OTV offers a payload capacity of 750 kg, as well as 2 km/s of delta v. This change in velocity can be applied to increasing orbital altitude up to 2,000 km. Another possibility is to modify orbital inclination up to 7°. The satellites travelling on this space tug have access to electrical power, and communications. For its propulsion, Vigoride features a microwave electrothermal thruster, which uses water as propellant.
Low-Latitude Ionosphere/Thermosphere Enhancements in Density (LLITED) is a mission part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. Consisting of two 1.5U spacecraft, the agency assigned it the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) number 40. Their development was a collaboration between The Aerospace Corporation (TAC), Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Florida, and the University of New Hampshire (UNH).
Each of these very small satellites have an outside size of 11x11x17 cm (~4.3×4.3×6.7 in) and a mass of 1.97 kg (~4.4 lb) each. The walls are made of aluminum, and they use both magnetic torque rods and tiny reaction wheels to achieve attitude control. Neither LLITED presents any thruster, while their electrical power is obtained through unfoldable solar arrays producing up to 15 W. Two Li-ion batteries per spacecraft store this power, allowing for a 1-year mission life.
The LLITED mission is to study Earth’s atmosphere, particularly the interaction between layers that are electrically charged, and others that are not — the lower thermosphere/ionosphere (100 km to 500 km in altitude). More precisely, the mission will provide a better understanding of the Equatorial Ionisation Anomaly (EIA) and the Equatorial Temperature and Wind Anomaly (ETWA).
Consequently, the “A” and “B” sats will take measurements of the same point, from two different places, studying temperatures and winds. In order to do that, they contain a GPS radio occultation sensor (CTECS-A) by TAC, an ionization gauge (MIGSI) by NHU, and a planar ion probe (PIP) by ERAU. In addition, they will make this observations between a quarter to half an orbit away.
The knowledge gained from this mission will enable the creation of better models — mathematical descriptions — of our planet’s atmosphere.
Other Payloads On Vigoride-6
NameQuantityPurposeREVELA1Demo of innovative image processing algorithmsDISCO-11Educational, experiments for in-orbit testingVIREO1In-space demo of AI-powered camera autonomous drivingIRIS-C1Educational, aiming at improving university’s both CubeSat bus and ground stationsSMPOD0313U CubeSat deployer by Italian firm Arca Dynamics.
This aerospace company has its headquarters in Italy, where it started to develop a vehicle capable of deorbiting deceased spacecraft. Later on, it moved to the business of satellite carriers, i.e., space tugs. To this day, the firm has launched their vehicles on all of the previous Transporter missions, as well as on Starlink Group 2-5.
D-Orbit’s OTV can carry up to 160 kg of satellites, being capable of accommodating spacecraft of different shapes and sizes. This means microsats and CubeSat can be transported from the launcher’s drop-off point to other altitudes or inclinations. After this trip, proprietary (DPOD, DCUBE), or third party dispensers deploy the passengers. ION is also capable of supporting hosted payloads, run from the ground as a part of the carrier itself. In this mission, the ION serial number “SCV010” is going to space.
Payloads On ION SCV010
NameQuantityPurposeKepler2Data relay, communicationsAlba Cluster 71Deployer. Description in its own tab.
The Germany-based company offers a series of services, from payload integration, to deployment, and mission management. In order to provide them, Exolaunch developed products such as separation hardware, CubeSat deployers, payload port adapters, deployment sequencers, and it is projecting an OTV named Reliant. Notably, the firm has all previous Transporter missions under its extensive flight heritage.
In order to better fits customers’ needs, Exolaunch may assign one or many of its deployment systems. These include:
CarboNIX: this is a shock-free separator system capable of handling microsats massing in the range of 10 kg to 250 kg. To ensure this, different standard sizes are offered, as well as customization. Four of these rings will be used in this mission.
EXOpod: flying since 2017, these deployers have evolved to host all sort of cubesat sizes, from 0.25U all the way up to 16U, allowing, in addition, for some combination. In this mission, six EXOpod Novas are installed inside the fairings.
EXOport: two of these multiport adapters will fly on Transporter-7, enabling the use of one port on a rideshare plate for a whole CubeSat cluster. A combination of the previous two systems can be used for satellite deployment.
CarboNIX separators (credit: Exolaunch)
EXOpod cubesat deployer (credit: Exolaunch)
EXOport multiport adapter (credit: Exolaunch)
Payloads Integrated By Exolaunch
NameQuantityPurposeTaifa-113U Earth observation CubeSat.Sateliot-016U CubeSat, unknown.FACSAT-21Colombian 6U defense CubeSat.Connecta T2.11Turkish Plan-S’ 6U Earth observation satellite.Sapling-21Educational, bus and swarm demonstration.BRO-916U maritime surveillance sat: geolocation and characterization of vessel type. 9th in the constellation.LEMUR-226U CubeSats.LEMUR-213U CubeSat.NorSat-TD1Demo for satellite control, tracking, navigation, communication, and maritime traffic monitoring.InspireSat 71Sorbonne University’s 2U Earth observation cubesat.DEWA SAT-216U Earth observation cubesat for water and electricity infrastructure monitoring.NanoAvionics13U IoT data relay cubesat.RoseyCubesat-11Educational, high-school students take part in assembly, integration, and testing. Imaging and amateur radio.SSS-2B13U cubesat.ÑuSat 36-394Satellogic’s ~40 kg Earth observation microsatellite.Undisclosed2–
Maverick Space Systems
Offering mission engineering and launch-related services, this US private company serves both commercial and government clients, who can be domestic or international. It was founded in 2019, and since then it took part in, at least, the first two Transporter missions. The firm developed a family of CubeSat dispensers named Mercury, as well as other payload aggregation hardware for rideshare missions.
Another mission part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, the Colorado Inner Radiation Belt Experiment (CIRBE). It consists of a 2U satellite, given the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) number 47. The University of Colorado Boulder (UCB), particularly the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), was in charge of its development. It aims at measuring the ionization in the inner radiation belt around the Earth.
On the outside, its measurements are 10x10x30 cm (~3.9×3.9×11.8 in), which correspond to the XB1 bus, by Blue Canyon Technologies. It provides the spacecraft with more than 30.4 W of electrical power, thanks to a pair of deployable solar arrays. The platform stores 70 Wh in a Li-ion battery, while its nominal lifetime is five years or more. The XB3 presents capabilities for data storage, as well as for communications with ground stations — over UHF, and much faster S-band, too. Further, a star tracker, and a inertial measurement unit (IMU) help in correctly pointing the satellite through active attitude control. CIRBE’s total mass is 5.5 kg (~12.2 lb)
Inside the CubeSat there is an instrument named REPTile-2 (Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope integrated little experiment – 2). Its design allows it to measure electrons with an energy of 3 to 3.5 MeV, and 6 to 35 MeV protons. These are present in this region of space, and represent a threat to orbiting satellites, and to astronauts. To carry out its observations, REPTile-2 will always remain perpendicular to the magnetic field it is crossing.
By doing so, it will be possible to further the understanding of the energetic particles in that region, and how the belt is formed. Gaining knowledge of its dynamics will improve useful forecasting for future missions orbiting through this zone.
Other Payloads Integrated by Maverick
NameQuantityPurposeGHOSt2Hyperspectral Earth observation microsatellites for oil pipe leak monitoring.
Focused on PocketQube design, manufacturing, and deployment, the Scottish Alba Orbital is a thriving start-up. As a launch broker, the company has already flown on vehicles like the Atlas V, the Electron, and the Falcon 9. And because of these satellites being very small, they need to be arranged in clusters, so they travel to space in groups. Presently, Alba Cluster 7 is aboard this Transporter mission.
Albapods are the PocketQube dispensers designed by this firm, allowing them to deploy up to 96P of spacecraft. These can be composed of tiny satellites of 1P, 1.5P, 2P, or 3P, which means a full deployment could very well place into orbit a whole constellation at once.
Payloads Integrated By Alba Orbital
NameQuantityPurposeIstanbul1Hello Space’s IoT 1P picosatellite.ROM-2
Space Sparrow1RomSpace’s educational 1P picosatellite. Digital amateur radio repeater, imager, beacon.MRC-1001BME’s educational 3P picosatellite. Electromagnetic pollution monitoring.
NameQuantityPurposeİMECE1Turkey’s first sub-meter-resolution Earth observation satellite.KILICSAT1Technology demonstration.Tomorrow-R11Technology demonstration.Brokkr-11In-space refinery demonstration.GHGSat-C6/C7/C83High-Resolution Emission Monitoring Satellites.Hawkeye 360 Cluster 73RF-based Earth observation satellites.Umbra-061SAR Earth observation satellite.
What Is Falcon 9 Block 5?
The Falcon 9 Block 5 is SpaceX’s partially reusable two-stage medium-lift launch vehicle. The vehicle consists of a reusable first stage, an expendable second stage, and, when in payload configuration, a pair of reusable fairing halves.
The Falcon 9 first stage contains 9 Merlin 1D+ sea-level engines. Each engine uses an open gas generator cycle and runs on RP-1 and liquid oxygen (LOx). Each engine produces 845 kN of thrust at sea level, with a specific impulse (ISP) of 285 seconds, and 934 kN in a vacuum with an ISP of 313 seconds. Due to the powerful nature of the engine, and the large amount of them, the Falcon 9 first stage is able to lose an engine right off the pad, or up to two later in the flight, and be able to successfully place the payload into orbit.
The Merlin engines are ignited by triethylaluminum and triethylborane (TEA-TEB), which instantaneously burst into flames when mixed in the presence of oxygen. During static fire and launch the TEA-TEB is provided by the ground service equipment. However, as the Falcon 9 first stage is able to propulsively land, three of the Merlin engines (E1, E5, and E9) contain TEA-TEB canisters to relight for the boost back, reentry, and landing burns.
The Falcon 9 second stage is the only expendable part of the Falcon 9. It contains a singular MVacD engine that produces 992 kN of thrust and an ISP of 348 seconds. The second stage is capable of doing several burns, allowing the Falcon 9 to put payloads in several different orbits.
For missions with many burns and/or long coasts between burns, the second stage is able to be equipped with a mission extension package. When the second stage has this package it has a grey strip, which helps keep the RP-1 warm, an increased number of composite-overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) for pressurization control, and additional TEA-TEB.
Falcon 9 Booster
The booster supporting the Transporter-7 mission is B1063-10; as the name implies, the booster has flown nine previous times. The booster’s designation will change to B1063-11 upon successful landing.
B1063’s missionsLaunch Date (UTC)Turnaround Time (Days)Sentinel-6November 21, 2020 17:17N/AStarlink V1.0 L28May 26, 2021 18:59186.07DARTNovember 24, 2021 06:21181.47Starlink Group 4-11February 25, 2022 17:1262.45Starlink Group 4-13May 13, 2022 22:07108.20Starlink Group 3-1July 11, 2022 01:3958.15Starlink Group 3-4August 31, 2022 05:4051.17Starlink Group 4-31October 28, 2022 01:1457.82Starlink Group 2-5February 17, 2023 19:12112.75Transporter-7April 11, 2023 6:48 UTC52.48
Following stage separation, the Falcon 9 will conduct three burns. These burns aim to softly touch down the booster on SpaceX’s Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4).
Falcon 9 Fairings
The Falcon 9’s fairing consists of two dissimilar reusable halves. The first half (the half that faces away from the transport erector) is called the active half, and houses the pneumatics for the separation system. The other fairing half is called the passive half. As the name implies, this half plays a purely passive role in the fairing separation process, as it relies on the pneumatics from the active half.
Both fairing halves are equipped with cold gas thrusters and a parafoil which are used to softly touch down the fairing half in the ocean. SpaceX used to attempt to catch the fairing halves, however, at the end of 2020 this program was canceled due to safety risks and a low success rate. On Starlink Group 5-5, SpaceX will attempt to recover the fairing halves from the water with their recovery vessel NRC Quest.
In 2021, SpaceX started flying a new version of the Falcon 9 fairing. The new “upgraded” version has vents only at the top of each fairing half, by the gap between the halves, whereas the old version had vents placed spread equidistantly around the base of the fairing. Moving the vents decreases the chance of water getting into the fairing, making the chance of a successful scoop significantly higher.
An active Falcon 9 fairing half (Credit: Greg Scott)
Falcon 9 passive fairing half (Credit: Greg Scott)
Half of the fairing being taken off Go. Navigator. (Credit: Lupi)
A passive fairing half being unloaded from Shelia Bordelon after the Starlink V1.0 L22 mission (Credit: Kyle M)
All times are approximate
HR/MIN/SECEVENT00:38:00SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for propellant load00:35:00RP-1 (rocket grade kerosene) loading underway00:35:001st stage LOX (liquid oxygen) loading underway00:16:002nd stage LOX loading underway00:07:00Falcon 9 begins engine chill prior to launch00:01:00Command flight computer to begin final prelaunch checks00:01:00Propellant tank pressurization to flight pressure begins00:00:45SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for launch00:00:03Engine controller commands engine ignition sequence to start00:00:00Falcon 9 liftoff
Adapted rocket section’s original author, Trevor Sesnic.
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