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SpaceX Successfully Launches Low Cost Transporter-4 Rideshare Mission; Puts 40 Payloads into Orbit

On Friday, SpaceX successfully launched a German environmental mapping satellite and 39 co-passenger spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, avoiding thunderstorms that threatened to leave the Falcon 9 rocket grounded. Transporter 4 blasted out from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 12:24:17 p.m. EDT (1624:17 GMT). SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 from Florida’s Space Coast despite just a 30% probability of good weather for Friday’s launch, thanks to a brief clearing of the clouds during the countdown.

There was a thunderous roar when the Falcon 9 rocket’s nine Merlin 1D main engines fired up to create 1.7 million pounds of power and hydraulic clamps released it for its ascent into space. After a few seconds, the launcher vanished into the mist, but the Falcon 9’s cameras captured stunning footage of the rocket’s ascent. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 upper stage sprung into action two-and-a-half minutes into the mission, firing up the first stage rocket and separating it from the upper stage. Seventh time lucky: The number B1061 of SpaceX’s fleet successfully landed on its seventh attempt.

The mission’s 40 payloads were launched into a polar orbit more than 400 miles (650 kilometers) above the Earth by the second stage. Launched from Cape Canaveral near Florida’s east coast, the upper stage engine directed the rocket into a polar orbit and avoided flying over populous areas in South Florida. Between 14 and 18 minutes after liftoff, the rocket discharged its first three payloads, including Germany’s EnMAP hyperspectral imaging satellite, the mission’s biggest spacecraft.

For the second time in less than two minutes, the rocket’s upper stage engine sped up the rocket’s height to roughly 310 miles (500 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface and lowered its orbital inclination from 97.5 to 96.4 degrees. That paved the way for the other payloads to be released. About 86 minutes after liftoff, SpaceX reported that all 40 satellites had split from the rocket, and authorities pronounced the operation a success.

So far, SpaceX’s workhorse launcher has completed 146 missions, including this one, and has launched 12 times so far this year. Launched on SpaceX’s fourth dedicated rideshare mission, the payloads included business enterprises and government agencies from across the world. “Non-deploying hosted payloads” and an “orbital transfer vehicle containing spacecraft to be deployed at a later time” were among the 40 payloads on the Transporter 4 mission, SpaceX claimed.

In addition to the one-ton EnMAP, a stack of smaller spacecraft, including microsatellites, CubeSats, and “picosatellites,” were launched into orbit on Friday. When it came to mass and size, EnMAP stood head and shoulders above its fellow passengers on the Transporter 4 mission, weighing 2,160 pounds (980 kilograms) and being approximately the size of a small car.

DLR, Germany’s space agency, oversees the EnMAP mission and gave the satellite its first green light for construction in 2006. Technology and technical issues have caused a decade-long holdup in the introduction of EnMAP’s advanced imaging device. With a telescope and 242 color spectrometers, the satellite will scan the Earth’s surface to observe sunlight reflected off the land, lakes, rivers, and seas.

According to Sebastian Fischer, the mission manager of DLR, “EnMAP is a satellite that takes photographs of Earth.” Although images are often stored in three colors: red, green, and blue,” he continues, EnMAP is special in that it does not only focus on these three hues but also divides the light into a countless number of very narrow wavelength ranges.” Scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, farmers, and foresters may learn more about environmental conditions by studying the finer details, which can provide information about plant health and water contamination.

According to Fischer, “we have a different picture for each wavelength range” in EnMAP that can be analyzed. It is possible to determine whether or not a plant is deficient in water or nutrients by using this technology. OHB, a German space corporation, constructed the EnMAP spacecraft and its hyperspectral imaging equipment. Fischer said the original idea was to put EnMAP into orbit on a smaller rocket, like India’s PSLV or the European Vega. However, SpaceX’s rideshare program provided EnMAP a ride to orbit at the perfect moment.

It was difficult to locate a speedy launch for our mission on the launcher market at the time, but we were able to do so with SpaceX, and it was a major factor in our decision to work together, according to Fischer. EnMAP was unable to find a commercial launch date that worked with their timeline. Fischer told Spaceflight Now, “We desire to have it launched as soon as possible rather than postponing the program anymore.”

In 2019, SpaceX launched a launch service for tiny satellites called SmallSatRideShare. A record 143 satellites were sent into orbit on the inaugural Transporter mission, which was launched on January 24, 2021. A total of 88 spacecraft were taken into orbit by Transporter 2 on June 30, 2021, while a total of 105 spacecraft were launched by Transporter 3 on January 13, 2022.

EnMAP’s inclusion on the mission was the primary factor in reducing the number of satellites on the Transporter 4 manifest to 40. It was the heaviest satellite ever carried by SpaceX on a Transporter mission, and the Falcon 9 lofted EnMAP into an orbit that was higher than any of the prior rideshare launches from the company.

As many as four dedicated Falcon 9 rideshare flights are planned for this year, boosting the frequency of Transporter launches from around one every six months to every three-to-four months.

Transporter 5, the next rideshare launch, will take off from Cape Canaveral on June 1st. It was recently moved from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California where it had previously been situated.

The ride-sharing launch service is in tremendous demand. A number of SpaceX clients have claimed that the Transporter mission’s pricing is unrivaled in the space launch market. To put 440 pounds (200 kilograms) into sun-synchronous orbit, SpaceX costs clients as low as $1.1 million, according to the company’s website. By recycling the Falcon 9 rocket hardware, the price has been reduced.

This month, SpaceX increased rideshare launch fees by 10%, citing “excessive levels of inflation” for the price increase. For the same reason, SpaceX increased the price of a dedicated Falcon 9 launch from $62 million to $67 million.

Despite Fischer’s refusal to reveal the cost of SpaceX’s launch for EnMAP, he said that the cost was included in the mission’s overall budget of roughly $300,000,000, which also covers five years of space operations. It was initially planned to spend 90 million euros on EnMAP. In late February, a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 cargo jet flew the EnMAP spacecraft from Germany to Cape Canaveral, Florida, only days before the United States barred Russian planes from US airspace after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

During mid-March, engineers made sure EnMAP’s trans-Atlantic voyage had been weathered, then filled the spacecraft with hydrazine fuel. Getting EnMAP on a rideshare flight was a difficulty since it’s a large satellite with a lot of capabilities to test at the launch site, Fischer said. “However, I must mention that the whole process was quite smooth. There was no one-day delay throughout the whole launch campaign.

Last week, SpaceX joined the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing with the remainder of the launcher, encapsulating EnMAP and its 39 co-passengers. Thursday afternoon, ground crews wheeled the Falcon 9 from its hangar to pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and then erected the rocket vertically in preparation for Friday’s launch chance. To minimize the structural pressures on EnMAP during the separation of the other satellites, Fischer said EnMAP was deployed first from the Falcon 9 rocket.

After detaching from the Falcon 9, German ground crews were able to reach EnMap via a tracking station in Svalbard, Norway, approximately an hour later. Before the satellite starts its operational mission in September, after two weeks of checks and activations, EnMAP’s instrument will be calibrated and commissioned.

According to Walther Pelzer, the director of DLR, EnMAP will fill a gap in Earth observation missions by being able to gather spectra in both the visible and infrared light bands. This will allow EnMAP to detect aspects of Earth’s surface that are impossible for the human eye to discern.

Using this technology, Fischer says, “we may then detect the fingerprints of various materials, or the behavior of specific surfaces, particularly natural surfaces, such as farmland and forests.” When it comes to identifying the crops being cultivated in fields throughout the globe inboxes as tiny as 100 feet, this data might be a lifesaver for farmers (30 meters).

This knowledge is critical, Pelzer added, because of the world’s growing population and the consequent need for food security in the future. Algae growth and contamination in interior and coastal waterways will also be studied by the mission’s crews. Scientists will be able to get the EnMAP data for free in a few days. As a result of the spacecraft’s capacity to aim 30 degrees on each side of its ground track, the mission may collect data over the same area as often as every four days.

In addition to the 88-pound (40-kilogram) GNOMES 3 radio occultation atmospheric monitoring satellite, which belonged to a Colorado-based business called PlanetiQ, the Falcon 9 launched a tiny spacecraft dubbed LEO-1 for Omnispace. The remaining payloads of the Transporter were released by the Falcon 9 when it had lowered its orbit.

In addition, five commercial Earth observation satellites for Satellogic were delivered, bringing the constellation of the Argentine company’s Earth observation fleet to a total of 22 satellites. Transporter 4 carried a Satellogic “NewSat” satellite, which has a new camera and onboard processors.

HawkEye 360, a U.S. business developing a satellite network to identify and pinpoint the source of terrestrial radio transmissions, had three formation-flying spacecraft aboard the Transporter 4 flight. They were launched together. During Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, HawkEye 360’s RF surveillance satellites discovered GPS interference.

The satellites riding on SpaceX’s Transporter 4 rideshare mission during encapsulation inside the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing. Germany’s EnMAP satellite is seen on top of the stack. Credit: SpaceX

According to Lynk Global CEO Charles Miller, the Transporter 4 mission carried the business’s sixth spacecraft, which was developed by the Virginia-based corporation to link conventional mobile phones via satellite. Lynk Global’s application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mentions one satellite, Lynk Tower 1, with the designation “Lynk Tower 1.”

As if it were a cell tower in the sky, the company’s technology provides internet, phone, and text messaging connection to any location on the globe. Miller told Spaceflight Now that Lynk Tower 1 weighed roughly 60 kilos when it was launched. On the Transporter 4 mission, NanoAvionics in Lithuania created a new microsatellite platform called MP42. In support of the French start-up UnseenLabs’ network of satellites for maritime monitoring, BRO-7 CubeSats, roughly the size of a suitcase, was launched.

For the first time, a six-unit CubeSat was launched to demonstrate UHF tactical communications in the North Sea and Arctic area by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, a military research department. CubeSats called BDSAT, AlfaCrux, and Shakuntala were launched as part of Transporter 4’s technology demonstration mission, as well as an educational and tech demo CubeSat from the University of Brasilia in Brazil.

Swarm Technologies, a firm owned by Space, also had 12 “picosatellites” aboard the Transporter 4 mission. Swarm is working on a low-bandwidth satellite communications platform. There are nearly as many Swarm satellites as bread slices. On the Transporter 4 mission, the Falcon 9 rocket also delivered a satellite for the Italian business D-Orbit. In the next weeks, D-ION Orbit’s satellite transport vehicle will release seven smaller spacecraft from the Falcon 9 rocket.

D-Orbit does not have a relationship with Kleos. Kleos is a client of Spaceflight Inc., and we worked with D-Orbit to put them into orbit. The launch contract is ours. Despite the fact that it seems to be a minor distinction, our legal staff is insistent that we get it worked correctly.

D-cargo orbits include four spacecraft from Kleos Space, a Luxembourg-based manufacturer of satellites. For the January Spaceflight mission, Kleos paid for rideshare, but the satellites didn’t go up.

The Kleos satellites were launched by Transporter 4 with the help of Spaceflight and D-Orbit.

Using radiofrequency broadcasts, Kleos believes its satellites can identify and geolocate them, giving governments and commercial clients information on marine activities. Three HawkEye 360 spacecraft launched on the same launch vehicle as Kleos, which is comparable to the Kleos mission. Four objects from Atmosphere, an Italian start-up giving space for customers to deposit memories and keepsakes in wooden boxes for an orbital trip, will also be carried by D-satellite Orbit’s carrier module together with three Chilean university-built CubeSats.

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Written by Alex Bruno

Alex is a writer with a passion for space exploration and a penchant for satirical commentary. He has written extensively on the latest discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics, as well as the ongoing efforts to explore our solar system and beyond. In addition to his space-related work, Alex is also known for his satirical writing, which often takes a humorous and irreverent look at contemporary issues and events. His unique blend of science and humor has earned him a dedicated following and numerous accolades. When he's not writing, Alex can often be found stargazing with his telescope or honing his comedic skills at local open mic nights.

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