Spaceflight Buys SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket for 2017 Rideshare Mission

Seattle space business Spaceflight, which sends its customers’ small satellites into orbit by renting excess capacity on other companies’ launch vehicles, bought a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX to conduct its own dedicated “rideshare” mission in 2017.

By controlling the entire mission, Spaceflight can cater to higher-value customers who weren’t willing to trade the cost savings of being the secondary cargo on a mission for the lack of a firm launch schedule.

“We needed to provide that control for our customers, and the customers that want that are willing to pay a premium for it,” said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight Services, the Spaceflight division that handles launches and deployments of small satellites.

The company started by deploying customers’ so-called CubeSats—miniature, standardized satellites sent into low Earth orbit (LEO) for research, training, and other purposes. “We still manifest and deploy CubeSats, but we’ve moved to larger payloads, up to the 500 kilogram-area,” he said. These larger satellites are expensive and companies don’t want to risk their investment in development and launch if there’s a chance it will be delivered into space late, Blake said. It costs $17.5 million to launch a 450-kilogram satellite into LEO, according to Spaceflight’s published commercial pricing.

Blake said the company would also continue buying secondary payload space on other companies’ rockets for customers that can handle a flexible launch schedule (launches are determined by the timelines of the primary payload, among other factors). Spaceflight buys excess capacity from an international group of launch vehicle suppliers including U.S.-based Orbital Sciences, the Indian Space Research Organization, and Russian venture ISC Kosmotras.

[Editor’s note: Spaceflight CEO Jason Andrews will talk about Seattle’s future as a hub for commercial space exploration and entrepreneurship at Seattle 2035, Xconomy’s upcoming conference on the future of innovation. Learn more and register here.]

Spaceflight has sent up 77 satellites since 2013 and says it has more than 135 scheduled for deployment through 2018. Its customers include foreign and U.S. government agencies, research organizations, and commercial enterprises.

The Falcon 9 rocket planned for the forthcoming 2017 Sun Synch Express mission is built by SpaceX, the commercial space venture founded by Elon Musk in 2002, based in Hawthorne, CA, and with a new satellite communications office ramping up in Redmond, WA.

SpaceX describes the Falcon 9 as “the first rocket completely developed in the 21st century.” It is meant for ferrying satellites and other cargo into orbit, and for bringing astronauts to the International Space Station aboard the Dragon spacecraft. It is designed to be reusable, and SpaceX is testing that capability now, but the Falcon 9 Spaceflight purchased will be a one-time use launch vehicle.

Blake.

Blake.

“When that’s ready, we definitely plan to start using them,” Blake said, adding that Spaceflight plans to make the Sun Synch mission an annual event.

SpaceX and Spaceflight will work together to run the 2017 mission, with SpaceX handling launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast. When the mission reaches space, Spaceflight will take over to deploy its Sherpa payload adapter, which holds the individual satellites and puts them in proper orbit, Blake said. The target orbit is aligned with the sun, enabling earth-imaging satellites to take pictures during the day.

The Falcon 9 payload will be on the order of 6 metric tons, Blake said. The company has already booked about 80 percent of that capacity and is in negotiations to fill the remaining space. “It’s a little bit of a game of Tetris,” he said. “All the different payloads have different masses and different volumes, and we have to make sure they fit.”

SpaceX prices a Falcon 9 for a 2016 launch at $61.2 million on its Web site. Blake would not comment on the specific terms of its deal with SpaceX, but confirmed that it’s “in the ballpark” of the published price.

Spaceflight announced a $20 million investment from RRE Venture Capital, Vulcan Capital, and Razor’s Edge Ventures in March. While the funding gives the company a cushion and means for expansion into other business lines—such as its own earth-imaging business, BlackSky Global—the launch services business model is “mainly self-sufficient,” Blake said.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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