In the coming weeks, satellite operator Planet will launch a ride on one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, sending three of its own small satellites and 60 of SpaceX's Internet-radiant Starlink satellites. When the group of satellites launches, Planet will be the first to fly into space as part of the new SpaceX ride sharing program for small satellites.
The three planetary satellites launched at this next launch will complement the company's existing SkySat constellation in near-Earth orbit. The constellation currently consists of 15 spacecraft, each about the size of a washing machine, which produce high-resolution images of the earth underneath. Planet plans to round out the fleet with six more satellites: three will start at an upcoming Falcon 9 launch and three more will fly at another Falcon 9 Starlink launch in July. The company initially announced its plan to launch SpaceX in mid-May.
SpaceX works directly with small satellite operators to coordinate carpooling on the Falcon 9
It's not the first time that Planet SkySats has launched on a Falcon 9 rocket. The company sent seven satellites, including two SkySats, onto a Falcon 9 in December 2018. This launch, known as the SSO-A mission, was a massive carpool that sent about 64 satellites on one missile. A separate company called Spaceflight brokered this launch, but SpaceX is now working directly with small satellite operators to coordinate the rideshare on the Falcon 9. This is part of a new program that the company announced last year.
Working directly with SpaceX was a quick experience, according to Planet. "One of the things that was really good about working with SpaceX is that it works at a very similar pace to Planet," said Mike Safyan, Planet's vice president of launch, for The Verge. "We both go quickly and do a lot of things in-house that enable us to work faster than the typical aerospace project." According to Safyan, the entire process from signing the contract with SpaceX to launch takes about six months lasted.
A Planet SkySat is preparing for takeoff.
According to Safyan, SpaceX had many flights to choose from for Planet. SpaceX has permission to launch nearly 12,000 satellites for its Starlink constellation to provide an internet connection to the earth's surface. To expand the project, SpaceX launched its Starlink satellites in batches of 60 per launch, with each flight taking place about once a month in 2020. This gives small satellites numerous opportunities to participate.
"When you're working as a ridesharing payload, you often have to choose a start and then just wait for that primary payload to be ready," says Safyan. “And sometimes these delays can add up to three, six, nine, 12 months. It really matters. While StarX Starlink starts so often and the orbit is exactly what we were looking for for these special SkySats. "
The three satellites will fly into space, which is on the stack of 60 Starlink satellites
The three satellites will be on the stack of 60 Starlink satellites, all packaged in the Falcon 9 nose cone. As soon as these three and the next three SkySats are launched, Planet offers its customers a new function: You can take pictures of certain places on Earth up to 12 times in a single day. The six upcoming SkySats are in an orbit that is 53 degrees north and south latitude, enabling such a high "repetition rate" in these areas. In other regions of the world, SkySats can track the same regions up to seven times a day.
This new feature is introduced at the same time that Planet improves the resolution of its images. The company recently launched a “campaign to lower the altitude” of its SkySat satellites to bring them closer to Earth. This has helped to improve the resolution of their images from around 80 centimeters per pixel to around 50 centimeters per pixel. Planet is also releasing a new online dashboard for customers to submit requests for these high-resolution images of the spaceship.
With just two starts, Planet is about to unlock the full capabilities of the SkySat constellation with a total of 21 satellites. And Safyan says the company is looking forward to flying the Falcon 9 again. As a small satellite operator, Planet has a lot of experience launching its satellites with different rockets. However, the company announced that the announcement of SpaceX's rideshare program, which costs the low price of just $ 500 per kilogram, played a key role. "If we can find a carpool that offers good prices and goes in the direction of a desired orbit – and we have pretty good confidence in the schedule – then this is usually our point of contact."