SpaceX announces Falcon 9 SmallSat Rideshare program with launches to start in 2020

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket could ultimately become a backbone of an attempt at commercializing the Moon. (SpaceX)

Elon Musk’s private space venture, SpaceX, has announced that it is expanding its launch services to directly address the growing needs of small satellite operators. The company plans to accomplish this by introducing a SmallSat Rideshare program, which involves regularly scheduled, dedicated Falcon 9 missions whose prices could go as low as $2.25 million per customer for payloads up to 150 kg.

A look at SpaceX’s SmallSat Rideshare webpage notes that the missions will be to Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO) for ESPA class payloads. What is quite unique about SpaceX’s newly-announced program is that unlike traditional rideshare models, these missions won’t be dependent on a Falcon 9’s primary payload. Instead, these SmallSat Rideshare missions will be pre-scheduled, allowing the missions to avoid delays with co-passengers.

SpaceX notes that payloads which run into development or production challenges leading up to their scheduled launch will be allowed to apply 100% of their payment towards the cost of rebooking. While rebooking fees will apply in this scenario, the system does provide SmallSat makers a way to avoid wasting their payments due to unforeseen or unfortunate delays.

Purchased 12 days or more before launch, the dedicated Falcon 9 SmallSat Rideshare missions will start at $2.25 million for payloads up to 150 kg on 15″ ESPA ports. Payloads up to 300 kilograms on 24″ ESPA ports start at $4.5 million. Each additional kg above the included mass will be charged $15,000. Purchased 12 to 6 days before launch, prices start at $3 million for payloads up to 150 kilograms on 15″ ESPA ports, while payloads on 24″ ESPA ports up to 300 kg will be charged $6 million. Payloads above the included mass would cost $20,000 per kg.

Three missions for the Falcon 9 SmallSat Rideshare program have so far been posted by SpaceX. Each of the missions will launch from the Space Launch Complex 4E at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the first of which is estimated to launch between November 2020 and March 2021. The launch periods for the next two SmallSat Rideshare missions have not been posted by the private space firm, though it has noted that the second mission will launch at Q1 2022 and the third will be at Q1 2023.

SpaceX’s SmallSat Rideshare program is the private space company’s lowest-cost program yet. This allows SpaceX to dip its toes into a market that has so far been addressed by companies such as Rocket Lab, whose expendable Electron rocket enables payloads of up to 150 kg to be sent to SSO for $5 million. With SpaceX’s prices for its recently-announced program, the cost per kg for a full Rocket Lab Electron would be twice as expensive.

Falcon 9 is SpaceX’s workhorse rocket and is the first commercial orbital-class rocket with a reusable booster. The rocket’s current iteration, dubbed Block 5, is designed for significant reuse, and SpaceX has designed Block 5 boosters to fly up to ten times with only minor repairs and inspections between flights.

SpaceX announces Falcon 9 SmallSat Rideshare program with launches to start in 2020
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