Vega’s first big rideshare flight awaits good weather

Arianespace has had two attempts to launch the Vega Flight VV16 mission, with unfavorable windows resulting in cancellations on June 18 and June 20, 2020.  As of June 23, 2020, Arianespace has yet to announce the next launch attempt. The launch would mark the rocket’s return to flight after a mishap in July 2019 and is the first dedicated rideshare mission for the vehicle.  Onboard the flight will be a mixture of imaging, IoT and research demonstration payloads, including Facebook’s first broadband communications satellite.

Flight VV16 will put 53 satellites into orbit on the Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) Proof of Concept (POC) flight, with 21 customers participating.  Arianespace developed the SSMS to address organizational and commercial needs for putting small satellites into orbit, a market currently addressed by a variety of companies, including SpaceX’s new rideshare program, launches using India’s PSLV launch vehicle and smaller volume rideshares and dedicated launches using Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

The SSMS model uses a dedicated satellite dispenser made up of different modular components to pack small satellites onboard an upper and lower platform. VV16 will have seven microsatellites on the top platform and 46 smaller Cubesats on the lower one.  Regular SSMS flights are planned once the Vega-C moves into service.

Facebook’s first communication’s satellite and 12 Planet SuperDove imaging satellites are among the satellites onboard the top deck. Maxar built the PointView Tech Athena satellite, an experimental low earth orbit (LEO) satellite.  PointView, a subsidiary of Facebook, intends to demonstrate high-speed millimeter wave operations between 60 GHZ to 90 GHz with downlink speeds of around 10 Gbps to ground speeds and uplink speeds of over 30 Gbps, according to Gunter’s Space Page.  It isn’t clear if Facebook is simply demonstrating the LEO millimeter wave technology to encourage others to embrace it or if the company plans to build its own large constellation of satellites to deliver global broadband.

In addition to the 12 Planet SuperDove sateliltes, Satellogic has its NuSat/Newsat-6 imaging satellite on the SSMS upper platform.  Newsat-6 provides imaging of 1 meter resolution and can also support video. Another 20 Newsats could be put into orbit by the end of this year, giving the company a substantial imaging constellation with rapid revisit time.

Other satellites on the upper deck include an AIS ship tracking satellite, a demonstration satellite for the University of Madrid, and GHGSat-C1, the first commercial satellite to monitor greenhouse gas emitted from sources on the ground.

Packed into the lower deck are a whopping 46 satellites. Another 14 3U Planet SuperDoves are place next to 12 Swarm Technology SpaceBEE satellites. Each SpaceBEE is roughly the size of a piece of Texas toast at 0.25U and will provide expanded commercial IoT coverage. Spire has 8 LEMUR-2 satellites onboard, performing a combination of AIS ship, ADS-B aircraft, and GPS-RO weather data duties.  Kepler Communication is finally getting its 6U TARS satellite into orbit, another IoT spacecraft that includes both high-sped Ku-band and lower-bit rate S-Band radios.

Rounding out the lower platform count are satellites built by ESA, SpacePharma, and several European universities, plus the Royal Thai Air Force and one “Undisclosed” customer.

Vega’s last launch attempt in July 2019 failed due to a flaw in the manufacturer of the rocket’s solid fuel second stage, resulting in the loss of the vehicle and the United Arab Emirates Falcon Eye 1 military reconnaissance satellite onboard.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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