In the coming weeks, satellite operator Planet will ride one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, sending three of its own small satellites and 60 of SpaceX’s Internet beam Starlink satellites. When the satellite group is launched, Planet will be the first to follow space as part of SpaceX’s new satellite carpooling program.
The three Planet satellites assembled during this next launch will add to the company’s existing SkySat constellation in low Earth orbit. The constellation is currently made up of 15 spacecraft, each the size of a washing machine, that generate high-resolution images of the Earth below. Planet plans to supplement the fleet with six other satellites: three in anticipation of a future launch of Falcon 9 and three others ready to fly on another launch of Falcon 9 Starlink in July. The company initially announced its launch plan with SpaceX in mid-May.
It will not be the first time that Planet will launch SkySats on a Falcon 9 rocket. The company sent seven satellites, including two SkySats, to a Falcon 9 in December 2018. This launch, known as the SSO-A mission, was a huge carpool that sent about 64 satellites on a single rocket. A separate company called Spaceflight negotiated the launch, but now SpaceX is working directly with small satellite operators to coordinate ridesharing on the Falcon 9, as part of a new program announced by the company last year.
According to Planet, working directly with SpaceX was a quick experience. “One of the things that was really nice about working with SpaceX is that they work at a rate very similar to that of Planet,” said Mike Safyan, vice president of launch at Planet. The edge. “We are both going fast and we are doing a lot of things internally, which allows us to go faster than the typical aerospace project.” Safyan says the entire process took around six months, from the initial signing of the contract with SpaceX to launch.
SpaceX had many flights to choose from for Planet, says Safyan. SpaceX is authorized to launch nearly 12,000 satellites for its Starlink constellation to provide Internet connectivity to the surface of the Earth. To carry out the project, SpaceX launched its Starlink satellites in batches of 60 per launch, each flight taking place approximately once a month in 2020. This offers many possibilities for small satellites to follow.
“When you’re working as a shared payload, you often have to choose a launch, then you just have to wait every time that main payload is ready,” says Safyan. “And sometimes these delays can add up to three, six, nine or 12 months. It really depends. Whereas with SpaceX, they launch Starlink so often, and the orbit is really well suited to what we were looking for for those specific SkySats. “
The three satellites will be located at the top of the stack of 60 Starlink satellites, all packed inside the Falcon 9 nose cone. Once these three and the next three SkySats are launched, Planet will offer a new capacity to customers: capture images of certain spots on Earth up to 12 times in a single day. The next six SkySats are headed for an orbit that will pass through 53 degrees north and south latitude, which will allow for such a high “revisit rate” over these areas. And in other regions of the world, SkySats will be able to capture the same regions up to seven times a day.
This new functionality is deployed at the same time as Planet amplifies the resolution of its images. The company recently conducted a “lowering campaign” for its SkySat satellites in the past six months to bring them closer to Earth. This helped improve the resolution of their images from about 2.6 feet (80 centimeters) per pixel to about 1.6 feet (50 centimeters) per pixel. Planet is also releasing a new online dashboard for customers to help them submit requests for this high resolution imagery from the spacecraft.
With only two launches to go, Planet is about to release all of the capabilities of the SkySat constellation with a total of 21 satellites. And Safyan says the company is thrilled to fly the Falcon 9 again. As a small satellite operator, Planet has a lot of experience launching its satellites on different rockets, but the company said the announcement SpaceX’s carpool program, at the low price of just $ 500 per kilogram, had changed the game. “If we can find a carpool opportunity that has good prices and goes to the desired orbit – and we have pretty good confidence in the schedule – then that is usually our port of call. “