Seattle-based Spaceflight has bought a dedicated SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch in 2017 that will be used to put more than 20 satellites into low Earth orbit.
Seattle-based Spaceflight, which built a business getting its customers’ small satellites tucked aboard rockets launched by others, has now bought an entire rocket launch itself — with all the opportunities and risks that carries.
Spaceflight will provide the entire payload for a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch in 2017 — list price is about $65 million — shooting more than 20 customer satellites into low Earth orbit.
SpaceX, led by billionaire Elon Musk, will still launch the rocket.
Jason Andrews, founder and chief executive of Spaceflight, said the satellite-launch business, which he started five years ago thinking it would fill a market niche, has exceeded all his expectations.
The first payload Spaceflight launched cost $250,000. Early next year, it launches a set of satellites worth about$20 million, Andrews said.
Buying the Falcon 9 rocket and integrating all the satellites onto the launch vehicle brings the total cost of the 2017 mission to something close to $100 million, said Andrews.
“It’s a huge deal,” he said. “It signifies not only the growth of our business but also the growth of the market. We anticipate doing this on a regular basis.”
Spaceflight, which employs a total of about 85 people, is in process of opening a new headquarters west of Lake Union.
Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight’s launch business, said the plan is to launch a dedicated Spaceflight rocket every year after 2017.
Until now it has arranged sharing rides for its customers on rockets launched on schedules determined by others.
Last Sunday, for instance, Spaceflight’s latest customers caught a ride on an Indian rocket launched from Chennai in northeast India.
The needs of the primary customer — on Sunday’s flight, the Indian government sending its first space observatory into orbit — always dictate the launch timing. So Blake said some prospective customers are reluctant to be secondary players, with the consequent uncertainty in scheduling.
“By buying a rocket, we can create different classes of service” for customers “where time is of the essence and they want to control the schedule themselves,” Blake said.
The 2017 mission will take a diverse collection of U.S. and foreign satellites, both government and commercial, into a low Earth orbit that moves in time with the sun. Such an orbit, favored by digital-imaging and mapping companies, lets satellites take photos of different locations at the same time of day.
Spaceflight will control the entire payload, and some of its customers can pay more to control the timing of the launch.
SpaceX builds its Falcon 9 rockets in Hawthorne, Calif., and will launch the Spaceflight mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles.
Spaceflight’s customers on the 2017 mission will include German national aerospace agency DLR and the U.S. Department of Defense, said Blake.
In Seattle, the company will take all the small satellites provided by its customers and attach them to hardware to be fitted inside the launch rocket that will enable deployment in orbit. Spaceflight will also ensure the foreign customers meet U.S. export-compliance requirements.
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“Then we ship them down I-5 to Vandenberg and integrate that payload stack onto the (SpaceX) launch vehicle,” Blake said.
The launch operation brings two types of risk, business and technical.
First, committing to launching an entire rocket is “escalating the size of the bet you’re taking,” said Blake.
Spaceflight must fill the rocket payload and make a profit. It plans to deploy “over 20” satellites on the 2017 Falcon 9 mission, whose maximum payload is about 14 tons. The company charges $5 million to launch a 330-pound satellite, $28 million for one weighing a ton.
Maximum payload on a Falcon 9 is about 14 tons, including all the hardware that carries the satellites.
Blake said the 2017 mission is already 80 percent full.
Even if the payload is sold out, the space business brings the separate risk that something could go catastrophically wrong.
SpaceX had its first launch failure in June when an unmanned spacecraft headed for the International Space Station with a cargo of supplies blew up just after the Falcon 9 rocket took off.
Later investigation indicated that a 2-foot steel strut snapped inside the rocket during liftoff. Though SpaceX rockets are grounded until a definitive cause is established, the company said it expects to return to flight this fall.
Blake said NASA and the Department of Defense have strict guidelines about when SpaceX can return safely to flight.
“We’re very careful,” he said. “We ask lots of questions.”
SpaceX has been trying to make its launch rockets reusable, precisely guiding the launch vehicle softly back to the Earth’s surface so that it can land on a pad floating at sea and be refurbished for another launch.
So far, it hasn’t managed this very difficult feat, although it has come close.
“Once reusable rockets come on line, we do plan on buying those,” said Blake.
But for Spaceflight’s 2017 launch, the rocket won’t be reusable. It’s a one-shot deal.