LOGAN, Utah — The scheduled Aug. 24 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a single 475-kilogram satellite into a 720-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit is a spectacular waste of rocket capacity that casts an unflattering light on the lack of flexibility of the launch-services and small-satellite sectors.
The launch, carrying Taiwan’s Formosat-5 Earth observation satellite, comes at a time when multiple small-satellite owners are waiting months, and even years, for a chance to ride on board as secondary passengers on missions heading to polar low-Earth orbit.
The lost opportunity for the small-satellite sector is mirrored in SpaceX’s likely financial loss for the mission. Taiwan’s National Space Office (NSPO) paid around $23 million for the launch, originally booked in 2010 on a SpaceX Falcon 1e rocket. The launch had been scheduled to occur in 2014 or 2015.
SpaceX cancelled the Falcon 1 program to focus on the more-powerful Falcon 9. Falcon 1 customers were transferred to Falcon 9.
Sherpa’s long wait
Spaceflight’s Sherpa small-satellite tug was long expected to be the companion payload, with some 90 small satellites on board and to be deployed into much lower orbit after Formosat-5 was dropped off at 720 kilometers.
It was to be the first of what Spaceflight hoped would be a regular series of Sherpa launches that would establish Spaceflight as a reliable aggregator of demand in the small-satellite sector, whose growth has been spectacular.
Satellite machine-to-machine messaging provider Orbcomm initially objected to the Spaceflight launch, saying the Sherpa tug would intersect Orbcomm’s constellation of satellites.
U.S. regulators ultimately approved the Sherpa flight. Among other mission considerations, Spaceflight and SpaceX agreed that SpaceX would abort the separation of Sherpa from Falcon 9 if an anomaly with Formosat-5 prevented the rocket’s second stage from lowering the orbit from 720 kilometers to 450 kilometers.
Spaceflight also agreed that If Sherpa’s separation occurred at any other orbit, Sherpa’s satellites would not be deployed.
Geospatial imagery provider Planet agreed to put 56 satellites on the Sherpa tug, with other satellite operators supplying 34 more payloads of various sizes.
In September 2015, Spacefligiht procured a second Falcon 9 launch, this time as the primary customer. Called the Sun Synch Express or SSO-A, the mission today has no firm launch date but is likely to slip from 2017 into 2018, according to Spaceflilght.
The inaugural Sherpa mission with Formosat-5 then fell victim to the multiple delays at SpaceX as the launch-service provider introduced new Falcon 9 variants. A 2014 launch slipped into 2015.
Tired of waiting, Planet moves on
In June 2015, a Falcon 9 failed on launch of a cargo mission to the International Space Station . That put pressure on SpaceX’s already large customer backlog of commercial customers. In September 2016, the vehicle suffered another failure, this time during a prelaunch test, on the launch pad, that destroyed a commercial telecommunications satellite.
Apparently around that time, Spaceflight’s Sherpa mission customers began looking elsewhere. In November, Planet backed out of the mission and put most of its Sherpa-intended satellites on India’s PSLV vehicle. Eighty-eight Planet satellites were aboard the PSLV’s record-setting 104-satellite launch in February.
Planet launched 48 satellites on Russia’s Soyuz rocket in July as part of a 73-satellite launch.
Spaceflight was determined to carry on with the mission despite Planet’s departure, but in February informed the U.S. Federal Communications Commission that “Spaceflight has determined not to proceed with its Sherpa mission aboard the SpaceX rocket as previously planned.”
In response to Space Intel Report inquiries, Spaceflight said it could not have known when it pulled its Sherpa from Falcon 9 that SpaceX would progress through its manifest backlog fast enough to proceed with the Formosat-5 launch in 2017.
Depending on its performance during the rest of the year, 2017 is likely to be seen as the year when SpaceX began to demonstrate the high cadence it has been promising for years:
“It was unknowable at that time,” Spaceflight said. “We assessed the upcoming launches, identified opportunities, and rebooked all of our customers’ satellites onto other vehicles. Clearly SpaceX has reestablished a strong launch cadence these past months and we remain confident in our upcoming missions with them.”
Spaceflight denies arbitrage between Formosat-5 and its own mission
Industry officials speculated that Spaceflight took itself off the Formosat-5 mission to preserve a full complement for its SSO-A launch, on which it is the principle customer. Spaceflight denied this.
“The vast majority of satellites — maybe 95% of those scheduled to fly [with Formosat-5], were rebooked on a host of different launches this year. Only two or three cubesats ended up on SSO-A — because it’s a much later launch,” Spaceflight said. “Our goal was to get them launched as soon as possible.”
The company also denied that any of its Sherpa customers themselves were delayed: “No customer delays impacted our decision. All were ready to go.”
SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment on how it manages its manifest and how a customer that had waited more than two years for a flight opportunity could throw in the towel just months before the launch would occur.
The company also did not say whether it had attempted to find a replacement for Spaceflight, or whether Formosat-5 could not have been delayed a few more months to give SpaceX the time to find a new companion payload.
Reports in Taiwan said NSPO, perhaps to put pressure on SpaceX after the long delay, at some point inserted into the contract a provision under which SpaceX would refund 1.25% of the launch price for every month of schedule slippage. It is not clear when the timer on that condition began. NSPO declined to comment on the launch contract’s details.