On Wednesday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched 88 satellites into orbit in one go, marking the company’s second dedicated rideshare mission.
At 3:31 p.m. ET, the rocket launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and flew southward along the east coast on its way to space. NASA and radar satellite company ICEYE were among the government and commercial customers whose satellites it delivered to orbit, as were three satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink internet constellation.
The Falcon 9’s first-stage rocket booster — the large lower portion of the rocket that houses the engines that give the rocket its initial thrust at liftoff — returned to land upright on a ground pad after takeoff, allowing it to be refurbished and reused on future missions. The cost savings that SpaceX claims it achieves by reusing spaceflight hardware is seen as critical to making spaceflight more affordable.
The rocket’s booster was used on seven previous missions, and each half of the fairing — the dome-shaped cap atop the rocket that protects the satellites during launch — had also been used on previous missions.
SpaceX is best known for sending satellites, cargo, and — more recently — astronauts into orbit atop its Falcon 9 rockets, but the company recently began carrying rideshare launches for a variety of customers, in which the rocket’s cargo bay is stuffed with batches of small satellites belonging to a variety of SpaceX customers.
The rideshare missions allow SpaceX to capitalize on the growing demand for small satellites, or smallsats, into orbit.
Over the last few years, smallsats have exploded in popularity. They can be as small as a smartphone or as large as a refrigerator in size. As smallsat technologies have progressed, a slew of new companies have entered the market, promising to deliver services using new smallsat technologies.
Smallsats are typically launched alongside larger, more expensive satellites, and the waiting list can be lengthy and unpredictable. However, the launch industry has made a concerted effort to cater directly to the burgeoning smallsat market. Hundreds of new rocket companies are claiming to be able to build scaled-down rockets that can launch small satellites quickly and easily.
Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit are two such companies that have successfully launched their downsized rockets into orbit and begun commercial operations. Virgin Orbit launched its second orbital mission on Wednesday morning, just hours before SpaceX launched its rideshare mission.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are much larger than Rocket Lab’s and Virgin Orbit’s rockets, and they’re typically used to launch heavy communications or spy satellites, as well as SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which transport astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station.
It’s a company first to decide to dedicate additional missions solely to launching smallsat batches, and it shows how much interest in the industry has grown.
Experts are becoming increasingly concerned about congestion as the number of devices in orbit grows. Satellites have collided in space before, and while such collisions pose little risk to people on the ground, the debris from the collision can remain in orbit for years or decades.