Launch 12 Planet Doves via PSLV – CHECK!

By Jeffrey Roberts, Mission Manager

What a great ending to the launch campaign, and a great beginning for 12 Planet Dove satellites!

Dove_Planet Labs
Image: Courtesy of Planet Labs

A few minutes ago, we had a successful launch of the Dove satellites, known as “Flock 2p” on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket in Sriharikota, India.

This milestone is the culmination of over a YEAR of planning, testing, and integration activities for the Spaceflight and Planet teams. It began with Spaceflight purchasing excess capacity on board of a PSLV and the finding the right customer who needed a ride to the same orbit where the PSLV was headed – the Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO). Planet was the right company with their latest “flock” of advanced Earth imaging satellites. This mission will bring great new capabilities to the robust Planet constellation.

Planet is one of the “new space” companies that is seeking to revolutionize how people can use space-based products to help change the world for the better. Planet’s team is more than just big ideas; they have the largest Earth observing constellation on orbit!  Most of their satellites are about the size of a loaf of bread, a “3U Cubesat” in space vernacular. These small satellites are the key to the Planet success because they provide good resolution of the Earth (about 3-5 square meters), they are *relatively* inexpensive to launch, and they have many more launch opportunities than bigger satellites because they can share a ride with almost anyone!

So what was our role?

Spaceflight’s job was to provide launch services for Planet, which mainly consisted of:

  1. ensuring that the satellite and the rocket are compatible
  2. finding the right dispenser systems to eject the satellite from the rocket
  3. integrating the satellite, dispenser, and rocket for the mission
  4. certifying that the integrated payload stack is safe to fly
  5. navigating the regulatory process and “exporting” the spacecraft to support the launch

This is where spacecraft systems engineering comes in. Do you know that a rocket’s acceleration can cause an object to weigh ten time its normal weight? It’s our job to make sure that the satellite is strong enough. Do you know that a rocket launch is extremely bumpy? It’s our job to verify the satellite won’t shake apart. Do you know that the vacuum environment in space can cause tiny molecules to separate from one part of the satellite and then land on another part, like a sensitive telescope?  It’s our job to make sure that the satellite performs a vacuum “bake-out” to reduce the chance of contamination. Spaceflight provides all of the rocket factors that can harm the satellite, and carefully documents the tests performed by the satellite team to make sure the satellite will get to space safely.

Once a rocket gets to space, the satellite needs some mechanism to separate from the rocket so it can begin its mission. We evaluate the satellite requirements and select a deployment device that is best suited for the mission. There are many deployment devices available, especially for cubesats because they follow a standard size.

The deployment system that we selected for Planet is called the QuadPack, which is basically a box with four compartments. One Dove is loaded in each compartment, and when the rocket is in the right orbit, it sends a command to one door at a time to open, and a spring pushes the Dove out.

But don’t let the simplicity of the design fool you! The QuadPack is made to withstand the harsh environment of the launch, AND to protect the valuable satellite inside.

Launching satellites into space is a challenging and rewarding experience that uses the knowledge and creativity from many on our Spaceflight team. Some of the key players on this mission were:

  • Scott, the Spaceflight Services Chief Engineer responsible for mission assurance. Scott previously conducted numerous rocket launch campaigns with Orbital ATK.
  • Kristen, an Aerospace Engineer who served as the dedicated point of contact with Planet. Kristen was a Program Manager with NASA before joining Spaceflight.
  • Alex, the Mission Manager who lead all of the mission coordination and readiness verification. Alex is a former Captain in the US Air Force where he served as a Contract Manager.
  • Jeff, the PSLV Mission Manager who coordinates launch activities and rocket performance with India. Jeff is the former Chief Engineer with the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska, and a US Army Paratrooper.

The Spaceflight team is extremely proud to see the successful launch 12 Planet satellites.  But we can’t take a break – we have another PSLV launch coming up in August for BlackSky, and a record-setting SpaceX launch this fall with 89 satellites. Back to work for us today.

Check back again as we continue to open up access to space new and exciting technologies!

  • Jeff
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