This week’s SpaceX Starlink launch will carry two fewer broadband satellites but will include three Planet SkySat high-resolution imaging satellites in a rideshare to orbit. It is the first SpaceX rideshare mission and the satellites will substantially increase Planet’s imaging capabilities.
SpaceX’s next Starlink mission is scheduled to take place on Saturday, June 13, 2020, at 5:21 a.m. EDT and will be the ninth batch of broadband satellites put into orbit since the company started launching them last year. If all goes as planned, it will also be the first time SpaceX has conducted two Starlink missions within a month, a cadence it initially vowed it would conduct at the beginning of the year and continue throughout 2021 as it builds up to a constellation of over 1400 satellites. The last Starlink launch took place on June 2, 2020.
Each roughly the size of a dorm fridge, the three Planet SkySat satellites will sit on top of a stack of 58 Starlink satellites and will first have to be released into orbit before SpaceX can deploy its communications satellites. Earlier Starlink launches carried 60 satellites into orbit per mission, but SpaceX has made it clear it is providing regular rideshare opportunities through dedicated Falcon 9 launches and on a space available/mass available basis on Starlink missions. It isn’t known what, if any, effect the removal of two satellites will have on the overall Starlink constellation, given SpaceX has yet to provide any sort of public documentation on the Starlink website as to what the overall system network will look like or expected to perform once the first generation constellation is finished.
Planet isn’t saying how much it paid for the SpaceX rideshare and a second planned for July with another 3 SkySats, but the company said it got a bargain. The 6 SkySats were already built, but being able to fit into SpaceX’s launch schedule, build a new hardware interface, and ready the satellites for launch took place within six months – rapid speed rarely seen in the launch industry.
Adding six SkySats along with tweaks to lower the orbits of the existing fleet of high-resolution satellites will enable Planet to provide 50 centimeter resolution imagery and the ability to revisit locations on the globe anywhere from 7 to 12 times per day.
With the onslaught of new commercial optical and radar Earth Observation satellites coming into operation, it is easy to see why Planet wants to get more satellites into operation while delivering higher resolution. The company’s SkySat fleet previously delivered 80 centimeter resolution operating at a higher altitude.