SpaceX launch of Spaceflight SSO-A – CIMSS Satellite Blog

University of Wisconsin-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center

SpaceX launch of Spaceflight SSO-A

GOES-17 Upper-level (6.2 µm), Mid-level (6.9 µm) and Low-level (7.3 µm) Water Vapor, plus Near-Infrared “Snow/Ice” (1.61 µm), Near-Infrared “Cloud Particle Size” (2.24 µm) and Shortwave Infrared (3.9 µm) images [click to enlarge]

* GOES-17 images shown here are preliminary and non-operational *

SpaceX launched a Spaceflight SSO-A mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base (KVBG) in California at 1834 UTC on 03 December 2018. GOES-17 Upper-level (6.2 µm), Mid-level (6.9 µm) and Low-level (7.3 µm) Water Vapor images in addition to Near-Infrared “Snow/Ice” (1.61 µm), Near-Infrared “Cloud Particle Size” (2.24 µm) and Shortwave Infrared (3.9 µm) images (above) showed the hot thermal signature of superheated air from the booster rocket engines, along with a brief cold thermal signature of the booster engine condensation cloud on Water Vapor images. A second hot thermal signature was seen over the adjacent waters of the Pacific Ocean at 1840 UTC as the first stage rocket fired its entry burn to land on a drone ship. Since a GOES-17 Mesoscale Domain Sector was positioned over that region, images were available at 1-minute intervals.

2 Responses to “SpaceX launch of Spaceflight SSO-A”

Raising the color bar: What are the units and their values? It also appears that the loops are mixing the proverbial apples and oranges: brightness temperature and visible reflectance/albedo. I don’t use the same colors on my images and I’m not sure you are using the same ranges either – what do the colors represent?

In the 1.61 µm and 2.24 µm Near-Infrared images, brighter whites indicate a higher reflectance value — which, in this case, is also driven by a hot thermal signature since each of those 2 spectral bands are sensitive to thermal energy (hence the term “near-infrared”). In the 3.9 µm Shortwave Infrared image, the color scale transitions from hot infrared brightness temperatures [ºC] on the left to cold on the right. The same principle applies to the 7.3 µm, 6.9 µm and 6.2 µm Water Vapor images — since these are essentially infrared spectral bands, their color scales also transition from warm brightness temperatures [ºC] on the left to cold on the right. If you’d like more information about each of the GOES-17 ABI spectral bands shown in this blog post, I have provided links to their respective Quick Guides. Hope this helps.

KazSTSat and VESTA due to lift-off on Spaceflight s SSO-A SmallSat Express Mission

Spaceflight sso-a

KazSTSat and VESTA due to lift-off on Spaceflight‘s SSO-A SmallSat Express Mission
by Staff Writers
Guildford, UK (SPX) Nov 16, 2018

KazSTSat during assembly at SSTL. Credit SSTL.

KazSTSat and VESTA, two small satellites designed and manufactured at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), are due to launch on Spaceflight‘s SSO-A SmallSat Express Mission on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base later this month.

KazSTSat is a small Earth observation satellite jointly developed by SSTL and JV Ghalam LLP, a joint venture between JSC “National Company Kazakhstan Garysh Sapary” (KGS) and Airbus.

The satellite has a mass of 105kg and will acquire image data at 18.7 m GSD with a swath width of 275 km. The spacecraft carries several experimental and demonstration units, including a beyond diffraction limit imager, a sun sensor, and a novel OBCARM.

KazSTSat will be operated by Ghalam, using a fully virtualized ground segment with S/X-band software defined back-ends deployed at KSAT ground stations in Svalbard and a technology demonstration ground station in Astana.

VESTA is a 3U nanosatellite technology demonstration mission that will test a new two-way VHF Data Exchange System (VDES) payload developed by Honeywell for the exactEarth advanced maritime satellite constellation.

The 4kg satellite has 3-axis pointing capability, an SEU tolerant on-board computer, VxWorks operating system and also flies a Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) VHF deployable antenna system developed by Innovative Solutions in Space for the VDES transceiver.

VESTA will be operated in orbit by SSTL, with the payload data being downlinked directly in S-Band to Goonhilly Earth Station.

The development of VESTA was co-funded by the UK Space Agency through its National Space Technology Programme (NSTP) which stimulates the growth and development of the UK space sector through investing in technology development. The project was led by Honeywell.


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Prelaunch Preview: SpaceX, Spaceflight SSO-A – Everyday Astronaut

Prelaunch Preview: SpaceX | Spaceflight SSO-A

Lift Off Time (Subject to change)
Mission Name and what it is
Launch Provider (What rocket company is launching it?)
Customer (who’s paying for this?)
Launch Location
Payload mass
Where’s the satellite going?
Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?
Where will the first stage land?
Will they be attempting to recover the fairing?
Will they be attempting to recover the second stage?
This will be the:
64th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket, 1st time the same booster has flown three times, 18th reflight of a booster, 19th mission for SpaceX in 2018 (New Annual Record!), 32nd successfully landed core.
Where to watch

Maybe for even more fun you can watch with Tim Dodd, The Everyday Astronaut starting at T minus 30! Come ask questions and join the conversation live!

What’s all this mean?

This is the first time SpaceX will be reflying a booster twice, making it the third time this rocket flies. Confused? Let’s try that again. This is the first time SpaceX will have flown a booster three times. All other boosters prior have only flown twice. This marks an important milestone as SpaceX takes another mighty step towards full, rapid reusability.

For this particular mission with this booster, 1046.3, SpaceX is launching 64 satellites aboard a Falcon 9 rocket to a low earth sun synchronous polar orbit on a ridesharing mission organized by Spaceflight Industries.

Falcon 9 on the launch pad for Iridium 7 mission – credit: SpaceX

The payload includes 15 microsats and 49 cubesats, from 34 different organizations representing 17 countries. The organizations include governments, commercial companies, universities, a high school, a middle school and an art museum.

SSO-A upper free flyer – credit: Spaceflight Industries

B1046 previously flew the Bangabandhu 1 mission in May and Merah Putih mission in August of this year, both from Florida. SpaceX will be landing the booster on the west coast droneship, Just Read the Instructions. Why do they land on the droneship sometimes, on land other times, or sometimes not at all? Here’s a video for you:

Tim Dodd, The Everyday Astronaut, will be livestreaming this launch starting at T minus 30 minutes. So come ask questions and join the conversation live! If you want the best way to know when a launch is coming, I’d suggest downloading the SpaceXNow OR Launch Alarm apps to stay in the know!


Will this be a drone ship landing or an LZ4 landing?

It will be a drone ship landing. JRTI is the exclusive drone ship for west coast launches.

Tim; I see on another site that this is core B1046.3 !
If that’s so this will be the first 3rd flight of a single core, yes?

Yes. Third flight of booster 1046

Yes, the booster will be landing one the west coast droneship, Just Read the Instructions
Space Launch Complex 4 West (SLC-4W) aka Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California

Booster and first stage are the same thing for Falcon 9. Yes they will be attempting to land it on west coast drone ship.

Quick little thing I think when you hover over this launch in the prelaunch preview tab you should see the boster number.

How far south will this be visible? I’m in Oceanside and wondering if I will get a glimpse.

I can usually see them on the night launches from San Clemente. They usually make it out of the atmosphere and out of site level with my location while looking straight out over the ocean. The graphics that show the visibility from the ground go all the way into Mexico as the launch progresses.
The launches you really want to catch are the ones that happen about an hour before or after sunset as the rocket will pass into the Sunlight while in the upper atmosphere. Those are the best. The last one was really spectacular as it looked totally dark from the ground until the exhaust from the rocket was high enough to reflect the sun and lit up everything on the ground again. I haven’t tried to watch a daylight launch from here, but even at night, from here the rocket starts off as a strange light that looks about like the planes taking off from John Wayne or LAX but it’s about 3 to 5 times brighter. It basically looks like it’s coming from around Santa Monica or just inland of Long Beach. The light gets 10 to 20 times brighter as it subjectively appears to me. The last launch that passed into the sun created a spectical that was about the size of my outstreched hand at arms length.

Since this is a polar orbit the rocket will be heading south. I’m in Vista and consistently see them. Expect it to be lower in the sky then you’d think at about 35 degrees above horizon. Last time it broke through a cloud bank at about 30-60 second. Of course you’ll need a clearish day. Look farther south later (it will be higher)

Hey Tim, is there any way you could add SCRUB info to this page. I saw the date of the launch had changed and immediately came here to see why. But no info :*(

Spaceflight Named to Fast Company – s Annual List of the World – s Most Innovative Companies for 2020, Business Wire

Spaceflight Named to Fast Company’s Annual List of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for 2020


Spaceflight Named to Fast Company’s Annual List of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for 2020 (Graphic: Business Wire)

Spaceflight Named to Fast Company’s Annual List of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for 2020 (Graphic: Business Wire)

SEATTLE–( BUSINESS WIRE )–Spaceflight, Inc. has been named to Fast Company’s prestigious annual list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for 2020. The list honors the businesses making the most profound impact on both industry and culture, showcasing a variety of ways to thrive in today’s fast-changing world. This year’s MIC list features 434 businesses from 39 countries.

Spaceflight was recognized by Fast Company for its comprehensive launch services offering, winning praise for its record-breaking dedicated rideshare mission, SSO-A.

“Being named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies acknowledges Spaceflight’s ability to develop and execute creative and inventive approaches to making space more accessible,” said Curt Blake, CEO and president of Spaceflight. “Our first dedicated rideshare mission, SSO-A, was incredibly complex and required our team to seek novel solutions to successfully launch 64 satellites from one vehicle. It was an important milestone for the industry and for Spaceflight, demonstrating the viability of rideshare missions. We remain committed to making space more accessible, executing more missions in 2019 than any other year. We’re poised for another year of growth, working with new launch vehicles and expanding our service offering to make launch more affordable, reliable and flexible.”

SSO-A was Spaceflight’s first-ever dedicated rideshare mission, a launch that sent the largest number of satellites from a U.S.-based launch vehicle to space. SSO-A was an important milestone for Spaceflight, as it gave a significant number of customers access to space in a cost-effective way. Without the option of rideshare, many of these organizations would not have had the funds to purchase a ticket to orbit.

The mission launched 64 satellites from 34 organizations from 17 different countries. This diverse manifest included satellites from Earth observation companies, nonprofit organizations, universities, and even a middle school. To effectively launch the payloads, Spaceflight engineered and constructed a payload stack that safely carried the satellites to space. Additionally, to avoid potential collisions on orbit, Spaceflight developed a sequence that deployed the satellites over the course of five hours.

Spaceflight’s success continued through 2019. The company executed nine missions, the most rideshare launches it had performed in one year, launching more than 50 satellites. One of those 50 satellites was the first privately funded lunar lander, which was launched on the first-ever rideshare mission to Geostationary transfer orbit. In total, Spaceflight has launched nearly 300 satellites across 29 different launches. In 2020, Spaceflight plans to execute more than 10 missions, across five different launch vehicles, including two new launch vehicles.

Spaceflight’s parent company, Spaceflight Industries, recently announced it has signed an agreement to sell Spaceflight’s rideshare business to Japan’s Mitsui & Co., Ltd. and Yamasa Co., Ltd. Upon regulatory approval, Spaceflight will continue to operate as an independent U.S.-based company, with a 50/50 joint venture ownership stake by Mitsui & Co. and Yamasa.

Fast Company’s editors and writers sought out the most groundbreaking businesses on the planet and across myriad industries. They also judged nominations received through their application process. The World’s Most Innovative Companies is Fast Company’s signature franchise and one of its most highly anticipated editorial efforts of the year. It provides both a snapshot and a road map for the future of innovation across the most dynamic sectors of the economy.

“At a time of increasing global volatility, this year’s list showcases the resilience and optimism of businesses across the world. These companies are applying creativity to solve challenges within their industries and far beyond,” said Fast Company senior editor Amy Farley, who oversaw the issue with deputy editor David Lidsky.

SpaceX Rocket Makes Historic 3rd Launch Into Space with 64 Satellites On Board, Space

SpaceX Rocket Makes Historic 3rd Launch Into Space with 64 Satellites On Board

SpaceX has made history yet again.

A Falcon 9 rocket with a twice-flown first stage lifted off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base today (Dec. 3) at 1:31 p.m. EST (1831 GMT; 10:31 a.m. local California time), carrying 64 tiny satellites to orbit.

SpaceX has re-flown used first stages many times, but today’s launch marked the first time a booster had ever propelled payloads to orbit on three separate occasions. The success is therefore an important milestone for SpaceX, which aims to fly all its vehicles repeatedly and frequently. Such rapid reuse could slash the cost of spaceflight, opening the heavens to exploration, company founder and CEO Elon Musk has said. [Launch Photos: SpaceX Falcon 9 Lofts 64 Satellites (and Lands) on Historic 3rd Flight]

And this particular first stage could conceivably fly yet again. The booster stuck its landing today, touching down softly about 8 minutes after liftoff on the SpaceX drone ship “Just Read the Instructions,” which was stationed in the Pacific Ocean.

SpaceX also attempted to catch the rocket’s payload fairing — the protective nose cone that surrounds satellites during launch — today with its net-equipped boat, Mr. Steven. (Falcon 9 fairings fall back to Earth in two pieces, each under parachute.) The attempt was unsuccessful, as Mr. Steven’s several prior tries have also been. But SpaceX still plans to reuse the fairing, which cost about $6 million to manufacture, Musk said via Twitter today.

“Falcon fairing halves missed the net, but touched down softly in the water. Mr. Steven is picking them up. Plan is to dry them out & launch again. Nothing wrong with a little swim,” Musk tweeted.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Dec. 3, 2018, carrying 64 satellites to orbit on the SSO-A: Smallsat Express mission. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Today’s mission, called “SSO-A: SmallSat Express,” set three other records as well, as noted by Florida Today’s Emre Kelly. For example, the Falcon 9 first stage became the first booster to lift off from all three currently operational SpaceX orbital launch sites. The first stage helped launched Bangladesh’s Bangabandhu Satellite-1 from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) this past May, and it lofted the Merah Putih spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in August. (KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are next-door neighbors on Florida’s Space Coast.)

SSO-A, which was organized by the Seattle-based company Spaceflight, was also SpaceX’s 19th successful orbital launch of 2018. The company’s previous high for a single year was 18, set last year.

And then there are those 64 satellites — the most spacecraft ever launched to orbit atop a single rocket from American soil. (The international record is 104, set in February 2017 by India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV.)

If all goes according to plan, all 64 spacecraft will separate from the Falcon 9’s second stage less than 45 minutes after today’s liftoff (though 60 will still be aboard two Spaceflight “free flyers,” from which they will deploy over the next four hours). These new denizens of Earth orbit are a diverse and interesting lot. One of the cubesats, called Enoch, carries a golden “canopic jar” containing a bust of Robert H. Lawrence Jr., the first African-American astronaut. (He never made it to space, dying tragically in a training-flight accident in December 1967 at age 32.)

Then there’s another art project, known as Orbital Reflector. The satellite will deploy a shiny, self-inflating sculpture designed to catch the sun and draw skyward the eyes of millions of people down here on Earth. Orbital Reflector is a temporary installation; it will get dragged back into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up within a few weeks, project team members have said.

Also aboard is the Elysium Star 2 cubesat, which is owned by the San Francisco-based startup Elysium Space. Elysium Star 2 is carrying the cremated remains of customers who paid (or whose friends or family paid) $2,490 for a “shooting star memorial” — basically, the chance for bits of yourself to be turned into meteors streaking across the sky. If Elysium Star 2 works as planned, it will be Elysium Space’s first successful orbital mission.

There are also more “traditional” cubesats, including three more “Dove” Earth-observing craft built by the prolific San Francisco company Planet. Sixteen Doves also launched last week aboard a PSLV, which lofted a total of 31 satellites.

The 64 SSO-A satellites consist of 49 cubesats and 15 “microsats,” according to a Spaceflight mission description. More than two dozen of these spacecraft were provided by international organizations, which together involved a total of 17 countries, Spaceflight representatives said.

Many of the payloads were developed by university groups, and a few were even built by high-school teams.

Today’s launch had been slated for mid-November, but it was delayed several times so SpaceX could perform additional checks on the rocket, and to wait for high winds over Vandenberg to die down.

Spaceflight SSO A: Latest News – Videos, Photos about Spaceflight SSO A, The Economic Times – Page 9


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Unidentified satellites reveal the need for better space tracking – The Verge

Why the Air Force still cannot identify more than a dozen satellites from one December launch

The case of the unknown satellites

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On the afternoon of December 3rd, 2018, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket took off from the southern coast of California, lofting the largest haul of individual satellites the vehicle had ever transported. At the time, it seemed like the mission was a slam dunk, with all 64 satellites deploying into space as designed.

But nearly four months later, more than a dozen satellites from the launch have yet to be identified in space. We know that they’re up there, and where they are, but it’s unclear which satellites belong to which satellite operator on the ground.

They are, truly, unidentified flying objects.

The launch, called the SSO-A SmallSat Express, sent those small satellites into orbit for various countries, commercial companies, schools, and research organizations. Currently, all of the satellites are being tracked by the US Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network — an array of telescopes and radars throughout the globe responsible for keeping tabs on as many objects in orbit as possible. Yet 19 of those satellites are still unidentified in the Air Force’s orbital catalog. Many of the satellite operators do not know which of these 19 probes are theirs exactly, and the Air Force can’t figure it out either.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that carried the 64 satellites on the SSO-A mission Image: SpaceX

For a good portion of these satellites, it’s possible that they have experienced some kind of technical problem, preventing the operators from contacting the spacecraft in orbit. But part of the identification issue stems from the SSO-A mission’s structure. This was a rocket ride-share, a type of launch that’s become popular in the industry. As satellites grow smaller, operators can pack a bunch of these tiny probes together on larger launch vehicles, sending them into space all at once. But with so many satellites going into orbit at the same time, it can be hard for the Air Force’s technology to distinguish the satellites from each other. And that, in turn, can make it hard for satellite operators to decipher which satellites are theirs.

“When you have objects that are in a cluster, so to speak, it’s very difficult to disambiguate which one is which exactly,” Moriba Jah, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas who specializes in space tracking and oversees a tracking site called AstriaGraph, tells The Verge.

Not knowing the exact location of a spacecraft is a major problem for operators. If they can’t communicate with their satellite, the company’s orbiting hardware becomes, essentially, space junk. It brings up liability and transparency concerns, too. If an unidentified satellite runs into something else in space, it’s hard to know who is to blame, making space less safe — and less understood — for everyone. That’s why analysts and space trackers say both technical and regulatory changes need to be made to our current tracking system so that we know who owns every satellite that’s speeding around the Earth. “The whole way we do things is just no longer up to the task,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and spaceflight tracker, tells The Verge.

How to identify a satellite

Up until recently, figuring out a satellite’s identity has been relatively straightforward. The Air Force has satellites high above the Earth that detect the heat of rocket engines igniting on the ground, indicating when a vehicle has taken off. It’s a system that was originally put in place to locate the launch of a potential missile, but it’s also worked well for spotting rockets launching to orbit. And for most of spaceflight history, usually just one large satellite or spacecraft has gone up on a launch — simplifying the identification process.

“For more traditional launches, where there are fewer objects, it’s fairly simple to do,” Diana McKissock, the lead for space situational awareness sharing and spaceflight safety at the Air Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron, tells The Verge. As a result, the Air Force has maintained a robust catalog of more than 20,000 space objects in orbit, many of which have been identified.

One of the Air Force’s tracking stations on Diego Garcia, which helps to catalog space objects Image: The Air Force

But as rocket ride-shares have grown in popularity, the Air Force’s surveillance capabilities have sometimes struggled to identify every satellite that is deployed during a launch. One problem is that most of the spacecraft on board all look the same. Nearly 50 satellites on the SSO-A launch were modified CubeSats — a type of standardized satellite that’s roughly the size of a cereal box. That means they are all about the same size and have the same general boxy shape. Plus, these tiny satellites are often deployed relatively close together on ride-share launches, one right after the other. The result is a big swarm of nearly identical spacecraft that are difficult to tell apart from the ground below.

Operators often rely on tracking data from the Air Force to find their satellites, so if the military cannot tell a significant fraction of these CubeSats apart, the operators don’t know where to point their ground communication equipment to get in contact with their spacecraft.

It’s a bit of a Catch-22, though. The Air Force also relies on satellite operators to help identify their spacecraft. Before a launch, the Air Force collects information from satellite operators about the design of the spacecraft and where it’s going to go. The operators are also responsible for making sure that they have the proper equipment (in space and on the ground) to communicate with the satellite. “It’s really a cooperative, ongoing process that involves the satellite operators as much as it involves us here at the 18th, processing the data,” says McKissock.

The struggles of the SSO-A operators

Technical glitches seem to be plaguing at least some of the lost satellites from the SSO-A launch, such as Audacy Zero — a communications CubeSat launched by the company Audacy. “There are still a couple of communication methods we are exploring, but it is looking likely at this point that we have a technical anomaly on the satellite,” Amanda Chia, head of business development at Audacy, tells The Verge.

Another complication to Audacy’s communication efforts is that the company still doesn’t know where their satellite is. Ralph Ewig, Audacy’s CEO, says his team has narrowed it down to five satellites from the launch, but they still aren’t certain which one is theirs. “Having been on the launch of that many other satellites made our diagnostics and troubleshooting a whole lot more difficult than we had originally anticipated,” Ewig tells The Verge.

For some operators, it seems that they were able to get in touch with their satellite at the beginning of the flight when all the satellites were in one big blob and close together in space. But as the probes have spread apart in the last few months, it’s become more difficult to know where to point their communication equipment, since so many identities are still unknown. Some operators have had trouble hearing back from the satellites in recent months.

An artistic rendering of what the fully deployed Orbital Reflector satellite would look like Image: The Nevada Museum of Art

That seems to be the case for Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector — an art project that’s supposed to deploy a giant reflective balloon capable of being seen from Earth. In January, the team behind the satellite said that they had been in contact with the spacecraft, but that the government shutdown had impacted their ability to deploy the balloon. The website for the project states that the team still doesn’t have accurate orbital data for the satellite. “We are working to resolve these issues and will have more conclusive information to share in the near future,” Amanda Horn, a representative for the Nevada Museum of Art, said in a statement to The Verge.

And sometimes, time is of the essence for operators. A satellite may need more immediate communication in order to work properly; perhaps the vehicle needs to be told to orient itself in such a way to keep its batteries charged. “Depending on the design, some satellites, you might not contact them for two years and then you contact them and they’re fine,” says McDowell, who provided detailed tracking information about SSO-A to The Verge. “And other satellites, not so much.”

Where did SSO-A go wrong?

The SSO-A launch isn’t the only example of mistaken satellite identity. Five satellites are still unidentified from an Electron launch that took place in December last year, which sent up 13 objects, according to McDowell. And in 2017, a Russian Soyuz rocket deployed a total of 72 satellites, but eight are still unknown, says McDowell. The SSO-A launch is perhaps the most egregious example of this ride-share problem, as nearly a third of the satellites are still missing in the Air Force’s catalog.

The Air Force says the launch posed a unique challenge. One difficulty had to do with the way the satellites were deployed, according to McKissock, who says it was hard to predict before the launch where each satellite was going to be. The SSO-A launch was organized by a company called Spaceflight Industries, which acts as a broker for operators — finding room for their satellites on upcoming rocket launches. Spaceflight bought this entire Falcon 9 rocket for the SSO-A launch, and created the device that deployed all of these satellites into orbit. One satellite tracker, T.S. Kelso, who operates a tracking site called CelesTrak, agreed with the Air Force, saying that Spaceflight’s deployment platform made it hard to predict each satellite’s exact position. “[Spaceflight] had no way to provide the type of data needed,” Kelso writes in an email to The Verge.

The infographic Spaceflight released before the SSO-A launch, detailing the diversity of satellites and operators. Image: Spaceflight Industries

Another hurdle revolved around the diversity of operators launching on SSO-A. Other launches have sent up even more satellites than the SSO-A mission did, but often the satellites primarily come from one operator. SSO-A boasted a wide range of operators, many of which were newcomers to spaceflight, and the Air Force had the complex task of getting necessary orbital information from each group on the flight. “There were so many different owner operators from 15 different countries, many of whom we hadn’t worked with before,” McKissock says. “That was a unique challenge — harnessing all of that information in an effective way.”

And in the end, the Air Force is sometimes at the mercy of the operators’ information. It’s possible that some of the owners of the unidentified satellite got in touch with their vehicles recently and just have not informed the Air Force where they are. “A lot of what we do is based on the information they provide, but that’s all we can do,” says McKissock. “So if an operator doesn’t want to support the identification process, they don’t have to.” In fact, Kelso, the satellite tracker, says he was able to identify an additional seven satellites of the 19 unidentified ones, by working with the satellite operators. “That suggests 18 SPCS is either not receiving the same reports or discounting them for whatever reason,” he writes.

The Air Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron has other priorities to consider, too. While identifying spacecraft is something the team always hopes to accomplish on every flight, the main function of the 18th is to track as many objects as possible and then provide information on the possibility of spacecraft running into each other in orbit. The identification of satellites is secondary to that safety concern. “I wouldn’t say it’s not a priority, but we certainly have other mission requirements to consider,” says McKissock.

How do we fix this?

For now, not knowing the identities of all the SSO-A satellites is mostly an inconvenience to the operators that aren’t able to get the full benefits of their satellites. Additionally, if these CubeSats did pose a threat to any nearby spacecraft, there isn’t much that could be done — even if we knew all the vehicles’ owners. CubeSats are too small to have any thrusters, so they wouldn’t be able to move out of the way of an imminent collision.

But there are still safety concerns with unidentified satellites, especially if we cannot identify probes from other countries that pose a threat to US satellites. “If you’re talking about safety, what you really care about is: Where is it? And who do I call if it’s coming close to my satellite?” says Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation focusing on space operations and policy, tells The Verge. That way, if another country’s spacecraft is getting close to, say, the International Space Station, the US knows who to contact to get it moved out of the way.

The SSO-A flight also demonstrates an issue that has plagued space tracking for decades: the ambiguity of what’s happening up above Earth. If a satellite breaks apart in orbit, for instance, sometimes we know why — and sometimes we don’t. Establishing causality in space, with numerous unidentified satellites around the planet, is even more complicated. “When something happens in space, there are multiple things that could have caused it, and they’re equally unknown,” says Jah. “And that’s a problem. We’d love to get to the point where when something happens, you could say, ‘This happened because of this,’ with near absolute certainty.”

The best way to get to that future is to identify everything. And one thing most experts agree on is that the Air Force should be able to name satellites without requiring input from anyone else. “The best case scenario is if the object can be tracked, independent of the owner operator,” says Jah. One idea is to have all operators add uniquely identifiable features to their satellites, something akin to an RFID tag or a license plate that can be read from Earth. Such a regulatory change could come about thanks to Space Policy Directive-3, signed on June 18th, 2018, which focuses on creating guidelines and best practices to help the US figure out what is going on in space at all times.

An AGI visualization of the amount of debris and active satellites currently being tracked around Earth Image: AGI

The problem is this would only work for the US spaceflight industry. There’s no way to force other nations to put license plates on their satellites. The United Nations came up with a set of best practices in 2018 that describes ways in which countries can make their satellites easier to track, except there is no way to strictly enforce these measures. There have already been numerous Chinese launches, for instance, in which multiple satellites have launched on one rocket and the Air Force has been unable to identify some of the probes.

That’s why some argue that the Air Force should improve its identification abilities by turning to the private sector. “There are a lot more potential sources of data that could be leveraged, in addition to the traditional military owned and operated radars and telescopes,” says Weeden. Companies like AGI, LeoLabs, and more are developing new algorithms, radar, and telescopes that the Air Force could use for tracking and identification. In fact, some of these companies helped a few of the satellite operators on SSO-A, such as Audacy, attempt to track down their satellites.

Having better technology options may be helpful, since the Air Force will soon be tracking more objects in space than ever before. Soon, the military will activate what is known as the “space fence,” a new radar system located on an island called the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. It’ll be able to track even smaller objects, which could be difficult for the 18th Space Control Squadron to process. “They’re suggesting anywhere between 100,000 to 200,000 new objects that have never been tracked before that are going to get added to the catalog,” says Weeden. “And their existing computer systems at the 18th just can’t deal with that.”

The Air Force acknowledges that processing the new data will require a lot of extra work. “We are fully aware the exponential increase in. data will make an already complex process more challenging,” Major Cody Chiles, a spokesperson for the Air Force’s Joint Force Space Component Command, said in a statement. “We are preparing for this challenge by actively working with our commercial, interagency, and military partners to identify ways to effectively and efficiently manage the influx of data.”

Adding to the problem is that thousands of new satellites are set to be launched in the years to come, thanks to companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and more looking to beam internet from space. Earth orbit is going to get crowded, increasing the need for clarity and identification. That means something needs to change soon before the amount of satellites in space quadruples — and we’re faced with the possibility of even more unidentified objects flying around our planet.

Correction April 2nd, 12:55PM ET: An original version of this article noted that an Indian PSLV launch had deployed 72 satellites in 2017, but it was a Russian Soyuz rocket, and the piece has been changed.

Spaceflight herded 64 cubesats onto a single Falcon 9 and has the scratch marks to prove it

Spaceflight herded 64 cubesats onto a single Falcon 9 and has the scratch marks to prove it

This article originally appeared in the August 19, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine under the title “Herding cubesats: Spaceflight’s SSO-A mission a logistical headache.”

The concept of large-scale rideshare missions, where dozens of cubesats or other smallsats are launched on a single rocket, has clear benefits for some smallsat users. Because larger launch vehicles usually have lower costs per kilogram of payload than small vehicles, users can get cheaper prices for launching smallsats, provided that rideshare mission is going to their desired orbit at their desired time.

But such missions are not without their challenges, both for the launch provider and satellite operators. Pulling together large numbers of satellites from many customers creates technical, logistical and regulatory issues for the launch provider, while operators are often uncertain about exactly where their satellites are after deployment.

A case in point is the SSO-A mission organized by Spaceflight Inc. and launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in December 2018. Spaceflight purchased the entire Falcon 9, rather than excess capacity that might be available for secondary payloads, allowing it to carry 64 satellites for 53 customers, including U.S. government agencies, companies and other organizations.

That manifest was “constantly changing” in the months leading up to the launch, recalled Jeffrey Roberts, who managed the SSO-A mission at Spaceflight, during a presentation at the annual Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University Aug. 7. “We knew that we were going to have customers that were changing in and out. We didn’t quite anticipate as many as we did,” he said.

A manifest that changed on a weekly basis, he said, required a flexible approach to accommodating the payloads as they joined or left the mission. There were ultimately 22 changes to the architecture of the mission, and a far larger number of engineering tests and customer reviews.

So, how do you integrate 64 satellites for a single launch? “Well, it’s one at a time,” Roberts said. Most of the satellites were integrated at a Spaceflight facility near Seattle, then trucked down to the launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base. About a dozen larger smallsats were integrated at the launch site.

The launch itself, he said, went as expected. “All planned deployments occurred,” he said, done in a carefully choreographed sequence to prevent the satellites from colliding with one another.

There was, though, a last-minute change to those plans. One customer, he said, had its cubesat locked in its dispenser, remaining attached to the payload adapter. “They were unable to get the appropriate licensing,” he said. “They swore they were going to get it, and we integrated them under the condition that they have to show their licensing. They didn’t, so we sealed the container.”

Spaceflight didn’t identify that satellite, but industry sources said it was Elysium Star 2, a one-unit cubesat from Elysium Space, a company that offers to fly cremated remains into space. Thomas Civeit, founder and chief executive of Elysium Space, confirmed their satellite remained attached to the payload adapter. “Elysium Space did receive a license for its cubesat but I guess Spaceflight made its decision based on multiple factors, which included its relationship with all the agencies involved in the process,” he said Aug. 13.

However, he added that he was satisfied that the cubesat made it to space. “Everybody wanted to find an effective way to achieve the mission objective, having our ash capsules in Earth orbit, and this was a good way to do it.”

The complexity of the mission did pose problems regarding identifying and tracking satellites. Roberts said four of the cubesats failed to make contact after deployment. Eight others, he said, remain “unclaimed” in that their operators have yet to notify the U.S. Air Force’s Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) which of the objects it’s tracking from the launch is their satellite.

Roberts said later that unclaimed cubesats aren’t necessarily dead, only that their operators, for whatever reason, haven’t contacted CSpOC. “There needs to be a discussion about how to enforce cooperation with CSpOC,” he said. “Spaceflight is exploring options to strongly encourage compliance.”


Satellite operators often struggle to figure out which satellite is theirs, especially right after launch. On a rideshare mission with dozens of satellites deployed around the same time and the same orbits, determining which satellite is which can be a challenge, making it difficult to determine which one to transmit commands to.

“We’re not against doing another SSO-A type mission. If the market demands it, we know how to do it.” Jeffrey Roberts, Spaceflight’s SSO-A mission manager. Credit: Spaceflight

It can also be a race against the clock. “The first 24 hours after you launch are critical,” said Kasandra O’Malia of Millennium Engineering and Integration (MEI) during an Aug. 4 presentation at SmallSat. “You need to make contact with your spacecraft as soon as you can to address any anomalies.”

MEI was supporting a U.S. Coast Guard mission called Polar Scout that flew two sixunit cubesats on the SSO-A flight. They were able to identify their satellites within a day of launch thanks to a network of ground stations; using their best estimate of the orbits of the satellites, they transmitted commands whenever the satellites were expected to be in range. When the satellites received the commands and started transmitting, sending back data from GPS receivers on board, they were able to refine the orbits.

While that approach allowed them to contact and identify the two satellites within a day, they waited 20 days before formally notifying CSpOC. “We were super-confident that we had identified which of the IDs were us,” she said of finally contacting CSpOC, citing past experience of misidentifying satellites that were “not trivial” to correct with the Air Force.

The Technical University of Munich also used radio transmissions to identify its MOVE-2 cubesat on SSO-A. Sebastian Rueckerl said the satellite could have been one of several objects in the CSpOC tracking data. His team was able to determine which one was MOVE-2 by measuring the Doppler shift of its transmissions as it passed over a ground station and comparing it to the expected Doppler shifts from each of the candidate objects. The measured signal “perfectly matched” the expected signal from one of the objects.

Other approaches, though, don’t rely on the radio transmissions from the satellites itself, offering a potentially more robust way to identify a satellite that might have problems transmitting, or not designed to transmit at all.

Two of those approaches — each described by their developers as “license plates” for cubesats — flew on separate missions in late 2018. SRI International developed the CubeSat Identification Tag, or CUBIT, as a small add-on to cubesats that transmits a signal identifying that satellite. The system, weighing only about 20 grams, is designed to operate independently from the rest of the cubesat, including its own battery.

“In essence, CUBIT is a radio-frequency license plate for cubesats,” said Samson Phan of SRI in an Aug. 8 conference presentation. “It allows us to provide each cubesat a unique ID.”

Credit: Spaceflight graphic

SRI worked with two organizations flying “passive” cubesats that lacked radios on SSO-A to incorporate CUBIT into their satellites. One of them was Elysium Star 2, which was not deployed from its dispenser. The other was Enoch, a threeunit cubesat developed by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art featuring a bust of the late African American astronaut Robert Lawrence Jr.

Phan said they got a signal from the CUBIT on Enoch the day after launch, confirming that the satellite had been deployed. A month later, SRI detected the CUBIT signal from Enoch again, allowing them to link Enoch to a specific object in the CSpOC catalog. “CUBIT actually works,” he said.

Los Alamos National Lab tested a different cubesat license plate, called the Extremely Low Resource Optical Identifier (ELROI), on another cubesat called NMTSat that launched on a NASA-sponsored Rocket Lab Electron launch in December 2018. ELROI flashes a pattern of lights identifying the satellite that can be detected by small telescopes on the ground.

The student-built NMTSat was equipped with radios, but failed to contact ground stations following launch. David Palmer of Los Alamos said in an Aug. 8 conference talk that they tried to look for the optical signal from the ELROI on the cubesat based on the orbital elements of the various unidentified objects associated with the launch, but failed to see anything.

“Maybe ELROI is not working, or maybe we just need to look harder, so we’ll look harder,” he said, adding that the lab will fly ELROI devices on two other cubesats in 2020.

Smallsat developers see promise in both CUBIT and ELROI, although both are still experimental. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s really COTS — ready offthe-shelf — at the moment,” said O’Malia, “but I anticipate that, in the next two to five years that these will be commonplace. We’ll be putting something on our cubesats that will probably allow CSpOC to identify those spacecraft much quicker.”

As for Spaceflight, the company doesn’t have plans for a mission similar in scale to SSO-A for the near future. “Keeping 50-plus customers on one mission is extremely hard,” Roberts said, with the company instead focusing on smaller rideshare missions.

But, he added, “we’re not against doing another SSO-A type mission. If the market demands that, we know how to do it.”

Spaceflight Industries raises more cash for its final frontier – GeekWire

Spaceflight Industries is raising more cash as satellite deals heat up on the final frontier

by Alan Boyle on November 15, 2019 at 8:45 am November 15, 2019 at 8:45 am

Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, which has taken on a string of high-profile satellite missions over the past year, is in the midst of a new funding round, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Nov. 14 filing indicates that nearly $39.5 million of the offered amount has been sold to 33 investors, leaving $389,580 remaining in the round.

We’ve reached out to Spaceflight Industries for comment on the filing, and will update this report with whatever we can pass along from the company.

Founded in 2010, Spaceflight Industries has two subsidiaries: Spaceflight Inc., which handles pre-launch logistics for small satellites; and BlackSky, which is building a satellite constellation to flesh out its geospatial data service.

Both subsidiaries have been in the news lately: Spaceflight is arranging the launch of a Japanese shooting-star satellite from New Zealand later this month, which would mark the latest in a series of rideshare missions. Spaceflight’s biggest moment came last December when it helped send 64 satellites to orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

BlackSky, meanwhile, has four Global satellites in orbit for its Earth-observation constellation, and it’s aiming to have four more launched within the next few months. Just this week, the subsidiary announced that it’s receiving $50 million in financing from Intelsat, a leading telecommunications satellite operator, to build up its infrastructure and boost a strategic relationship.

It’s not clear exactly what the new funding would be used for, but it’s a safe bet that Spaceflight Industries is boosting its capital to execute on its ambitions. The company has also gone through some financial restructuring over the past year.

Last year, Spaceflight Industries completed a $150 million Series C investment round that was tied to cooperative agreements with two European aerospace companies, Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio. One result of those agreements was a satellite-manufacturing joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space called LeoStella, which is producing the spacecraft for BlackSky.

Other backers of Spaceflight Industries have included Vulcan Capital, the investment company created by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital Management; RRE Ventures; Razor’s Edge Ventures; and Mitsui Co. Ltd.

The list of directors included in the Nov. 14 filing suggests that some of those backers are participating in the newly reported funding round as well. The named directors include:

  • William Porteous, general partner and chief operating officer of RRE Ventures.
  • Ajay Royan. managing general partner of Mithril Capital Management.
  • Mark Spoto, co-founder and managing director of Razor’s Edge Ventures.
  • Alan Kessler, a board member and adviser to Thales Defense & Security, which is a corporate cousin of Thales Alenia Space.

One of the named directors, Shawn Dougherty, hasn’t shown up in previous filings.

The filing also mentions Brian O’Toole, who’s a director as well as president of Spaceflight Industries and CEO of BlackSky; Brian Daum, CFO and COO for Spaceflight Industries and BlackSky; and Eric Kronman, the general counsel for those two business entities.

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ICEYE-X2 SAR Satellite to Be Launched on Upcoming Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express Mission

ICEYE-X2 SAR Satellite to Be Launched on Upcoming Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express Mission

ICEYE-X2 to become ICEYE’s second satellite deployment and the first Polish-Finnish satellite to-date.

Helsinki, FINLAND – November 8 – ICEYE, an Earth observation company creating the world’s largest Synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellite constellation, today confirmed it is launching the company’s second SAR satellite, ICEYE-X2, into low Earth orbit on Spaceflight’s SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission. The mission is currently targeted to launch on November 19th from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. ICEYE-X2 will further showcase the capabilities of ICEYE’s SAR technology. This launch follows the success of ICEYE’s first satellite mission ICEYE-X1 earlier this year. The ICEYE-X2 satellite has recently finished all tests, and it has been shipped to the launch site.

“After the success of ICEYE-X1, we are excited to move forward with the launch of our second satellite ICEYE-X2 with the help of Spaceflight,” said Rafal Modrzewski, CEO and co-founder of ICEYE. “The commercial satellite industry is changing and moving toward improved collaboration between new space and traditional companies, but it’s also speeding up collaboration between various space programs of governments, such as between Finland and Poland.”

Spaceflight’s SSO-A dedicated rideshare mission will the launch ICEYE-X2 into a sun synchronous low Earth orbit, along with more than 60 other spacecraft from 34 organizations. The ICEYE-X2 satellite mission is aiming for further improvements in ICEYE’s SAR imaging technology.

Spaceflight’s SSO-A mission has the unique opportunity of launching a record-breaking number of smallsats from a US-based launch vehicle, ICEYE-X2 being one of them,” said Melissa Wuerl, Vice President of Business Development, Spaceflight. “We are eager about the technological advancements coming out of the smallsat industry. This launch is a most momentous occasion for all.”

Earlier this year, ICEYE launched the world’s first SAR satellite under 100kg, ICEYE-X1, on-board India’s PSLV-C40 rocket. ICEYE-X1 successfully collected more than 600 images throughout its mission. By the end of 2019, ICEYE is on track to launch a total of 8 additional satellites after ICEYE-X2.

Media Contact:

ICEYE empowers others to make better decisions in governmental and commercial industries by providing access to timely and reliable satellite imagery. The company is tackling this crucial lack of actionable information with world-first aerospace capabilities and a New Space approach. ICEYE’s radar satellite imaging service, with coverage of selected areas every few hours, both day and night, helps clients resolve challenges in sectors such as maritime, disaster management, insurance, finance, security and intelligence. ICEYE is the first organization in the world to successfully launch synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellites with a launch mass under 100 kg. For more information, please visit:

About Spaceflight
Spaceflight is revolutionizing the business of spaceflight by delivering a new model for accessing space. A comprehensive launch services and mission management provider, the company provides a straightforward and cost-effective suite of products and services including state of the art satellite infrastructure, rideshare launch offerings and payload integration that enable commercial and government entities to achieve their mission goals on time and on budget. A service offering of Spaceflight Industries in Seattle, Wash., Spaceflight providers its services through a global network of partners and launch vehicle providers. For more information, visit


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ICEYE’s mission is to enable everyone to make better decisions based on timely & reliable Earth Observation data.