SpaceX is preparing to launch 114 payloads into orbit tomorrow morning on a Falcon 9, the sixth mission of its small satellite-sharing program. But while the rocket company is now a veteran of launches — SpaceX just wrapped up a record year with 61 launches in 2022 alone — Transporter-6 marks a milestone for a handful of space startups .
These startups include Launcher, which is working on its first space tug mission; Magdrive, whose first in-orbit technology demonstration; and Epic Aerospace, which is also launching its first space tug.
Launcher CEO Max Haot said the company realized there was a huge market opportunity to develop space tugs after SpaceX debuted its share program, which dramatically lowered launch costs. The launcher’s tug, called Orbiter, will deploy or carry payloads for 10 separate customers, and the company is also developing a small launch vehicle; Orbiter will be its third stage.
Space tugs are filling a market segment for customers who need a specific orbit but want to pay less than the cost of a dedicated rocket launch, Haot said. “If you need a specific orbit at a higher price, you’ll always end up needing a dedicated rocket, and eventually we’ll be competing there, but space tugs really help make these shared flights more useful because you More than one orbit can be reached.”
Launcher isn’t the only company eyeing the burgeoning space tug market. Epic Aerospace, which calls itself Space Transportation Network, will also launch a tug on Transporter-6 for the first time. Space services companies Momentus, D-Orbit and Exolaunch will also deploy or host satellites for clients on this mission. It looks like the space tug market is already crowded with players, but Haot says the ultimate winner is far from decided.
“If you look at the news reports, it looks like there are a lot of companies building space tugs. But if you look at the customer list it’s generally very unfamiliar, and no one has really demonstrated the payouts that are useful to satellite companies.
Magdrive, a British startup developing propulsion engines for high-thrust spacecraft, will also be in space for the first time for an in-orbit technology demonstration. The prototype propulsion system will draw energy from onboard solar panels, store it, and discharge it at different power levels.
The Transporter-6 mission will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 9:56 a.m. ET. This will be the 15th flight of the Falcon 9 booster known as B1060. Transporter-6 will also carry satellites from Planet Labs and Spire Global, as well as payloads from other scientific, research and commercial customers.
The launch will be live-streamed on SpaceX’s website.