A closer look at Transporter-1 and its record-breaking 143 satellites onboard

The rocket for the Transporter-1 mission waits on SLC-40 for launch. Credit: SpaceX

Update: Article updated to be accurate after first launch scrub due to weather, and to include more information on the possible 143rd satellite and payload configuration.

JAN. 23, 2021–SpaceX is set to launch the record-breaking Transporter-1 mission today at 10:00 a.m. EST, with 143 satellites onboard. The launch is set to break ISRO’s record of 104 satellites, set with the PSLV-C37 mission, on Feb. 15, 2017.

The mission will fly on booster B1058.5, which previously supported the Demo-2 and CRS-21 missions, along with the Starlink-L12 launch and the ANASIS-II mission. 1058 is uniquely marked with a NASA “Worm” logo across its side, due to its significance in carrying the first crewed mission from American soil since 2011. As for the launch itself, Transporter-1 will be flying out of Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral S.F.S., and weather conditions for the launch are currently 70% favorable.

Transporter-1 is part of SpaceX’s “SmallSat Rideshare Program,” and the first dedicated launch under the program. SpaceX has done rideshare missions in the past with other providers, such as the Vandenberg-based SSO-A mission with Spaceflight, Inc., which launched over sixty satellites, but that mission was not without its problems. After the launch of SSO-A, there were numerous reports of satellites that had gone “missing” or “untracked” as well as satellites that were not allowed to deploy due to “licensing issues.” Specifically, the Elysium Star 2 CubeSat was locked into its dispenser, as Elysium Space, the manufacturer, was “unable to get the appropriate licensing,” according to flight manager Jeffrey Roberts. (Elysium Space’s mission was still a success – as their goal is to fly cremated remains into space for “space burials,” so being stuck on the second stage wasn’t an issue.)

Transporter-1 hasn’t been without its own issues either, as SpaceNews reported on Jan. 6 that two DARPA satellites were damaged in SpaceX’s payload processing facility just a week before the launch’s original date of Jan. 14. According to SpaceNews’ industry source, “the mishap happened while the satellites were being stacked and the payload separation system was accidentally released.” While luckily for DARPA, this was not a catastrophic issue, it did require the satellites to be moved to a different launch, and such an accident could easily have resulted in the destruction of the satellites (akin to the NOAA-N Prime accident).

The launch, however, is still pressing forward amidst these issues and will be flying tomorrow with its record-breaking payload count. While SpaceX has not officially put out a list of every satellite on Transporter-1, they have published which providers are flying their own dispensers and tugs aboard the mission. Space Scout tracked down 142 out of 143 payloads, and below is a summary of the payload manifest along with a detailed description of each satellite (or satellite type).

Ports and Carriers:

SpaceX Integrated (49 spacecraft):

  • 36x Planet SuperDoves
  • 10x Starlink
  • Capella-3
  • Capella-4
  • iQPS-2

Kepler Port (17 spacecraft):

  • 8x Kepler Gen 1 satellites
  • 4x Planet SuperDove
  • UVSQ-Sat
  • ASELSAT
  • YUSA
  • IDEASSAT
  • GNOMES-2*

Maverick’s Mercury Dispenser (3 spacecraft):

  • 3x NASA V-R3x

Nanoracks’ Eyries-1 (9 spacecraft):

  • 8x Spire Lemur-2
  • GHGSat-C2

EXOport-1 (2 spacecraft):

  • 2x ICEYE

EXOport-2 (28 spacecraft):

  • 24x Swarm SpaceBee
  • Aurora Insights Charlie
  • DLR PIXL-1
  • TU Dresden SOMP2b
  • 1x ICEYE

Sherpa-FX1 (13 spacecraft):
Sherpa-FX1 is a satellite of its own, acting as an orbital space tug, and counts as a 14th spacecraft. Its hosted payloads are Celestis-17 and TAGSAT-1, which do not count as spacecraft.

  • 3x Hawkeye 2
  • 5x Astrocast 1.x
  • 3x ARCE 1
  • NASA PTD-1
  • Prometheus 2.10

D-Orbit Ion Satellite Carrier (20 spacecraft)
The Ion Satellite Carrier is a satellite of its own, acting as an orbital space tug, and counts as a 21st spacecraft.

  • 12x Swarm Spacebee
  • 8x Planet Superdove

*There is a single satellite unaccounted for. Multiple sources could not confirm which satellite this is, however, it may be Umbra Labs’ Umbra-SAR or PlanetiQ’s GNOMES-2, neither of which could be confirmed as flying on Transporter-1. Thank you to Tyler Gray of NASASpaceflight for tracking down the other four Kepler port payloads, and thank you to Jonathan McDowell for confirming the result of the results, and suggesting GNOMES-2 may be the 143rd.

48x Planet – SuperDoves

Planet Labs’ Dove satellites are deployed off of the Nanoracks dispenser on the ISS. SuperDoves are visually similar to the original Dove, but contain several imaging upgrades internally. Photo credit: NASA

The “SuperDove” is a Planet Labs 3U CubeSat designed for rapid Earth-imaging at 3-5 meter resolution. SuperDoves are an iterative improvement over the original Dove satellites, and are capable of imaging in eight spectral bands, as opposed to the original Dove’s four. Planet’s approach to Earth imaging relies on massive clusters of satellites, known as “Flocks”, that rapidly orbit the earth, providing daily and, in some cases, hourly images of Earth from space. 48 SuperDoves are flying on Transporter as part of Flock 4s, with 36 directly integrated. 8 are integrated on D-Orbit’s ION carrier, and four are integrated on the Kepler port.

36x Swarm – SpaceBee

Swarm works with Exolaunch to fly 24 SpaceBees on SpaceX Falcon 9 -  SpaceNews
SpaceBee satellites, lined up. Credit: Swarm Technologies

Swarm Technologies’ SpaceBees are picosatellites, built in the minuscule 1/4U CubeSat form factor. 36 SpaceBees will be flying on Transporter. Swarm is offering global “internet of things” services with the SpaceBee constellation and has FCC approval to fly 150 such satellites. More accurately, the SpaceBee constellation is made for short-burst data operation and is aiming for an incredibly cheap and rudimentary method of doing so. Swarm plans to offer, for $5/month + a tiny, $119 GPS-equipped transponder, a plan with the ability to send 750 200-byte data packets per month. While to an outsider, this may sound like an astonishing low data capacity (it would take four of these bursts to fit this paragraph up to this point), a significant amount of data can still be encoded in 200 bytes, well more than enough for certain frontier applications like an isolated weather station. Swarm competes in this range with providers such as Iridium, which provide more expensive, but higher capacity SBD capability in the same range.

24 SpaceBees are integrated onto EXOport-2, and 12 are integrated on the D-Orbit carrier.

10x SpaceX – Starlink

A Starlink satellite deploys its solar array. Credit: SpaceX

10 of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are directly integrated on Transporter-1. Starlink is SpaceX’s foray into the high speed satellite internet market, and is reliant on a controversial mega-constellation to deliver rapid, low-latency satellite internet to a large majority of the world. Hundreds of Starlink satellites have already been launched, with a recent launch of 60, and another one scheduled for next week.

8x Spire – Lemur-2

A Spire Lemur-2 satellite. Credit: Spire Global

Eight of Spire’s Lemur-2 satellites are integrated on Nanoracks’ Eyries-1 port. The Lemur-2 is a 3U cubesat that carries three payloads onboard each satellite: a ship tracker, a plane tracker, and a meteorology package. The Lemur uses GPS radio occultation to determine incredibly precise profiles for temperature, pressure, and humidity on Earth, doing so by listening for GPS signals passing through the atmosphere, and how distorted the end signal is. Ship tracking uses AIS signals, and plane tracking uses ADS-B.

8x Kepler Communications – GEN1

A Kepler satellite. Credit: Kepler Communications.

Eight of Kepler Communications’ GEN1 satellites are integrated on the Kepler port. These satellites, built on a 6U CubeSat bus, are for Kepler’s “Global Data Service” – which offers data speeds in the “hundreds of Mbps” to move up to terabytes of delay-tolerant data each month from any position on Earth. The satellites operate in the Ku and narrowband spectrums, using a software-defined radio.

5x Astrocast – 1.x

An Astrocast engineer places a satellite in a thermal vacuum chamber. Credit: Astrocast

Astrocast is a Swiss-based company launching five of their IoT 3U satellites onboard the Sherpa-FX1 payload tug on Transporter. Operating in the L-band, the satellites are special in that they have their own propulsion and deorbiting capabilities. Astrocast offers bidirectional communication capability at only 450 mW transmission power. The company is targeting an 80-satellite constellation in the future.

3x NASA – V-R3x

The three V-R3x satellites. Credit: NASA

V-R3x is a mission by NASA in order to demonstrate satellite-to-satellite high data rate communication, coordinated measurements, and tracked orientation/formation flight of all three satellites. Each V-R3x satellite is a 1U CubeSat, deploying from the Maverick Mercury dispenser, and NASA anticipates completing the mission’s “primary objectives within two weeks of launch, with a full mission duration of three months to gather additional data.” Furthermore, to complement the launch, NASA will also launch an identical CubeSat onboard a high-altitude balloon, with four units deployed on the ground over 100,000 feet away, and attempt to achieve the same goals as the orbital mission. V-R3x is based on the PyCubed open-source framework and uses Amazon Web Service’s satellite ground station, a first for NASA. NASA says that going forward, V-R3x will “provide NASA a simple, low-cost platform for future technology demonstration needs.” More on V-REx: What is V-R3x? | NASA

3x USF – ARCE-1

The ARCE-1 satellites are 1/2U CubeSats developed by the University of South Florida. ARCE stands for “Articulated Reconnaissance and Communications Expedition”, and is similar to V-R3x in that it tests inter-satellite communications links. The ARCE satellites were originally manifested on Astra’s Rocket 3.0, but following the cancellation of the DARPA Launch Challenge, it was moved to the Sherpa-FX1 payload tug on Transporter-1. Each satellite is equipped with a tunable software-defined radio and will test multiple communications schemes, such as low data-rate FSK and high-data-rate QAM.

3x ICEYE

ICEYE is a Finnish startup operating eponymous synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites. The ICEYE satellites are designed to provide near real-time radar imagery, and seven satellites have already been launched. Three are onboard Transporter, with two on EXOport-1, and one on EXOport-2.

3x Hawkeye 360 – Hawk 2

A Hawk 2 satellite. Credit; HawkEye 360

Hawkeye 360’s Hawk 2 satellites are part of Hawkeye’s RF analytics constellation. Each Hawk satellite serves to “identify, process, and geolocate a broad set of RF signals,” akin to a civilian SIGINT (signals intelligence) constellation. The satellites will be part of an 18-satellite constellation, which Hawkeye 360 calls a “first-of-its-kind”. Hawkeye’s products “include maritime domain awareness and spectrum mapping and monitoring,” and their customers “include a wide range of commercial, government and international entities.”

The three Hawk satellites will be integrated on Sherpa-FX1.

Capella Space – Capella-3, Capella-4

An artist’s rendering of a Capella satellite in orbit. Credit: Capella Space

Capella Space is a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) company launching two satellites on Transporter, directly integrated. Each satellite is capable of 50cm radar imagery in the X-band in any conditions, with an eventual plan for a 30-satellite constellation to provide hourly imagery. Capella Space is based in California and flew its previous two satellites on the SpaceX/Spaceflight SSO-A rideshare and a dedicated Rocket Lab Electron-Photon launch.

Single Payloads:

UVSQ – UVSQ-Sat

A simulation of UVSQ-Sat data. Credit: LATMOS

UVSQ-Sat, or “UltraViolet & infrared Sensors at high Quantum efficiency onboard a small Satellite” (anything to get that acronym, right?) is a 1U CubeSat developed by the French university UVSQ with the goal of measuring incoming solar radiation and “broadband measurements of Earth Radiation Budget,” that is integrated on the Kepler port aboard Transporter-1.

ASELSAN – ASELSAT

ASELSAT is a Turkish-developed 3U CubeSat on the Kepler port built to test ASELSAN’s indigenous X-Band transmitter with a camera payload, as well as to collect radiation data with dosimeters.

National Taiwan Ocean University – YUSAT-1

YUSAT-1 is a 1.5U CubeSat developed by the National Taiwan Ocean University, that will be integrated on the Kepler port. YUSAT is equipped with an AIS payload for monitoring marine vessels, as well as an APRS receiver, for applications ranging from traffic monitoring to migratory animal tracking.

National Central University – IDEASSat

IDEASSat, or the Ionospheric Dynamics Explorer and Attitude Subsystem Satellite is a 3U CubeSat developed by Taiwan (Republic of China)’s National Central University. IDEASSat’s goal is to measure the ionospheric activity affecting satellite and terrestrial communication. The science payload for IDEASSat is the Compact Ionosphere Probe, which is a plasma sensor based on heritage from FORMOSAT-5. The probe will be able to monitor the thermal, chemical, and electrodynamic structure of the ionosphere. IDEASSat is integrated on the Kepler port.

GHGSat Inc. – GHGSat-C2

GHGSat-C2 is a greenhouse gas monitoring, 16U scale non-CubeSat microsatellite that will be deployed on NanoRacks’ Eyries-1. Weighing in at about 15 kilograms, the satellite will be able to monitor targeted greenhouse gas emitters such as landfills and stacks flaring and venting. A secondary instrument will also measure clouds and aerosols. The satellite bus is capable of providing up to 80 Watts of power to the satellite. Two satellites, GHGSat-D and C1, have already flown to space onboard PSLV and Vega respectively, and GHGSat plans to launch three more after Transporter-1.

Aurora Insight – Charlie

Artist’s rendition of Aurora Insight’s “Charlie” satellite in orbit. Credit: Aurora Insight

Aurora Insight’s Charlie satellite is a “satellite-based radio frequency sensor” in the 6U form-factor integrated on Exolaunch’s EXOport-2 payload dispenser. Aurora Insight is attempting to map RF emissions around the world, measuring usage in several critical frequency bands, like cellular, TV, and Wi-Fi. Aurora’s CEO, Jennifer Alvarez, commented on the satellite, saying “This technology will provide Aurora Insight’s clients with an entirely new understanding of the spectrum environment, and we can shed light on the ambiguity that has surrounded it for years. The answers we uncover will help advance communications around the world, and enable organizations to plan, invest, and move forward confidently with a data-driven strategy.”

Charlie is based on NanoAvionics’ standard M6P bus.

DLR – PIXL-1

An artist’s rendition of PIXL-1 demonstrating a space-based optical communications link. Credit: DLR

PIXL-1 is a 3U CubeSat developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to test space-based optical communications links. While initially operated and controlled via UHF, once operational, the satellite will demonstrate a 0.3U, 350 gram laser communications module known as “CubeLCT”, with a theoretical data rate of 100 Mbps, comparable to modern home broadband connections. PIXL 1 will use its exceptionally fast downlink capability to transfer imagery from the satellite to the ground. PIXL-1 is integrated on EXOport-2.

TU Dresden – SOMP2b

TU Dresden’s SOMP2b (“Student On-orbit Measurement Project 2b”) satellite is a 2U CubeSat with the goal of “investigating new nanomaterials under the extreme conditions of space, to test systems for converting the sun’s heat into electricity and to precisely measure the residual atmosphere around the satellite.” More specifically, SOMP2b will precisely measure the qualities of the thermosphere – the residual atmospheric layer surrounding Earth in the low earth orbit ranges, where sparse, free molecules exhibit gas temperatures of over 1000 degrees Celsius, but are not dense enough to be accurately measured through normal means. SOMP2b is integrated on EXOport-2.

iQPS – iQPS-2

The first iQPS satellite. Credit: iQPS.

iQPS is a Japanese synthetic aperture radar company aiming to create a 36-satellite constellation by 2025. iQPS-2 is the second satellite of the constellation and will be directly integrated to the Transporter-1 launch vehicle. The key technology developed for the satellites, according to spokeswoman Yuki Ariyohsi in an email to SpaceNews, was a 3.6-meter diameter parabolic antenna that can compactly stow inside the satellite for launch. iQPS’s end goal is to be able to provide one-meter resolution imagery of “almost any point in the world within 10 minutes and every 10 minutes,” further stating that with such a resolution, customers could observe moving objects like livestock, vehicles, and vessels. The first iQPS satellite launched on an Indian PSLV.

NASA – PTD-1

Artist’s rendition of the PTD-1 satellite. Credit: NASA

NASA’s PTD-1 6U CubeSat is an exceptionally unique payload with the goal of demonstrating a new type of propulsion system, a hydrogen/oxygen in-space engine that generates its fuel from a single pint of water. PTD – which stands for Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator, is a series of missions that will demonstrate novel CubeSat technologies in low-Earth orbit, “providing significant enhancements to the performance of these small and effective spacecraft.”

“We have a driving need for small spacecraft propulsion systems,” says David Mayer, PTD-1 project manager at NASA Ames. “The need is for many reasons: to reach a destination, maintain orbit, maneuver around other objects in space, or hasten de-orbit, helping spacecraft at end-of-life, to be good stewards of an increasingly cluttered space environment.”

Water is one of the safest possible fuels usable for CubeSats – and comes with the promise of a very high specific impulse if you can split it correctly. PTD-1’s engine only ever splits water into hydrogen and oxygen when active, so the craft is safe. “We are disallowed from using high-performance propulsion systems in CubeSats because of the nature of how we launch these missions, namely by being attached to other spacecraft,” says Mayer, showing how critical safety is for a CubeSat.

“Water is the safest rocket fuel I know of.”

PTD-1 will fly on the Sherpa-FX1 payload tug.

Los Alamos National Laboratory – Prometheus 2.10

A Block 2 Prometheus satellite. Credit: LANL

Prometheus 2.10 is a 1.5U CubeSat developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory that was originally scheduled to fly on Astra’s Rocket 3.0 as part of the DARPA Launch Challenge but was moved to Transporter-1 due to the challenge’s cancellation, and will now be deployed onboard Sherpa-FX1. Seven out of ten satellites of the Prometheus Block 2 constellation have flown so far, with 2.10 scheduled to be the eighth. Each satellite costs less than $100,000 each, and is expected to have a service life of 3-5 years. The goal of the Prometheus constellation is to demonstrate the capability to transfer audio, video, and data files from portable, low profile, field units to deployed ground stations using over the horizon communications. Prometheus Block 2 features several advancements – including enlarged solar arrays, a star tracker, GPS receiver, and a hosted payload capability.

And finally, the 143rd satellite?

The 143rd satellite flying on Transporter-1 is unknown at this time. There are two possible candidates, however, neither has made it clear whether they are flying. Umbra’s UMBRA-SAR synthetic aperture radar satellite or PlanetiQ’s GNOMES-2 satellite may be the missing link, but until payload deployment, we will not know.

Update: Jonathan McDowell has suggested that GNOMES-2 may be the missing link. This still can not be confirmed by anyone, though.

Even though SpaceX has been concerningly reluctant to publish the entire satellite list – something that would be a given with almost any other launch service provider, Space Scout has tried our best to find every single satellite on this mission and provide a description of it – and we’ve confirmed 142 out of 143. Transporter-1 will be a record-breaking mission in many ways, but it most certainly should serve as a sign of a future to come, as well. We had to find every one of these satellites through external means – verifying through their sites and pages that they were flying on Transporter-1, as SpaceX never even provided a list. When SpaceX says less about the CubeSats flying on its rocket than ULA says about their government payloads – that’s worth noting.

Go Transporter-1, Go Falcon 9, Go SpaceX SmallSat Rideshare Program.

Lavie Ohana

Lavie – Webmaster, Co-Founder, West Coast Field Correspondent A student who enjoys reporting on spaceflight in her spare time, Lavie is a West Coast native that has reported on spaceflight at Vandenberg Air Force Base since 2017. Founder of the precursor site LaunchRats West Coast, she is the main author of the articles.

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