SpaceX appears to be on track to launch its fifth dedicated Falcon 9 rideshare mission as early as 2:27 p.m. EDT (6:27 p.m. UTC) on Wednesday, May 25, carrying a wide variety of interesting payloads into Earth orbit.
SpaceX is said to have assigned Falcon 9 B1061 to the mission and Transporter-5 will be its seventh launch and landing attempt since November 2020 and its third launch this year. Without any particular consequence, B1061 will also become the first Falcon 9 booster to launch two consecutive Transporter missions after supporting Transporter-4 less than two months ago. The Falcon 9 is expected to lift off from SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) facility LC-40 and augment Transporter-5’s payload and upper stage mostly out of the atmosphere, while that the booster will return to the Florida coast landing on a concrete slab a few miles to the south.
Like Transporter-4, which launched with just 40 deployable payloads on April 1, Transporter-5 appears to be another very small rideshare mission compared to SpaceX’s first three Transporter launches, demonstrating the company’s continued commitment. company to operate the service much like public transit. A public bus will always happily carry a single passenger – efficiency, while important, comes after reliability. For many individual customers of SpaceX’s Smallsat program, this can help alleviate some of the downsides of mass carpools of dozens of satellites, which can often make individual customers feel forgotten and unimportant when forced to swallow delays caused by payloads other than their own.
Based on official information provided by SpaceX on May 24, Falcon 9 is only expected to deploy 39 payloads during Transporter-5. However, the actual number of satellites deployed during the mission will likely be a little higher due to the presence of three or four different vehicles designed to host or transport some of these payloads to different orbits. Spaceflight’s “Sherpa-AC1” will not have significant propulsion, but it will carry multiple hosted payloads (“hosted” in the sense that the payload is not a free-flying satellite) after deployment from Falcon 9.
The other two or three are true Orbital Transfer Vehicles (OTVs), meaning they have some sort of propulsion and are designed to deploy smaller satellites into custom orbits. The ultimate goal of the many startups trying to develop successful OTVs is to extract the best of both worlds from large carpool missions and small rockets, combining ultra-low prices and highly optimized orbits for each payload. Transporter-5 can carry Exolaunch’s “Reliant” OTV (unconfirmed), but is definitely scheduled for launch with D-Orbit’s “ION SCV-006” OTV and Momentus Space’s first “Vigoride” OTV. Vigoride has the unique feature of being powered by a one-of-a-kind “microwave electrothermal thruster” that turns water into a superheated plasma thruster.
Vigoride’s first real launch will primarily be treated as a test flight, but it will also carry up to eight different small satellites. D-Orbit’s ION OTV only has one confirmed satellite on its manifesto, but will likely launch with at least a few more. In total, the number of satellites deployed following Transporter-5 will likely be closer to 50 – a decent improvement over Transporter-4.
Several of these approximately 50 payloads are particularly intriguing. Momentus Space’s first Vigoride OTV, if successful, could pave the way for the most capable commercial space tug currently available, with up to 2000 meters per second of delta V (dV) – a way to measure the endurance of rocket propulsion. NASA also demonstrated its small Terabyte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) technology demonstration satellite on Transporter-5 and will attempt to prove that it is possible to use small, high-powered lasers as extremely high-bandwidth downlinks. NASA hopes the small satellite will be able to transmit up to 200 gigabits per second (Gbps), which will allow it to transmit terabytes of data in a single pass over an Earth-based ground station.
AISTECH Space will launch a prototype Earth observation satellite equipped with a high-resolution thermal imager, the first of its kind. Finally, Nanoracks and Maxar are expected to launch the first of multiple planned demonstration and technology maturation missions for in-space manufacturing and construction technologies. The hosted payload is relatively simple in many ways and will only run for about an hour, but it aims to demonstrate the first structural metal cutting in space.
Parent company Voyager Space ultimately wants to use the expertise gained from the “Outpost program” to convert depleted rocket upper stages into orbital “outposts” that will house customer payloads and support the continued development of the Harvesting, Recycling, Construction and Suite.
As of 5:00 a.m. EDT (09:00 UTC), SpaceX has still not officially confirmed via Tweet or website update that Transporter-5 is ready for launch. If so, an official webcast available here will likely begin around 2:10 p.m. EDT (6:10 p.m. UTC).