The first satellite to be launched into Earth orbit, Sputnik, was launched from a spaceport in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The Central Asian country was then a Soviet republic. Later, the first human to fly into space, Yuri Gagarin, was also launched from Kazakhstan. Today, despite its independence, this spaceport remains the main launch site for the Russian space program.
However, when Kazakhstan wanted to launch a small scientific satellite called KazSaySat and a technology satellite called KazistiSat, the country did not choose a Russian rocket. Instead, it chose US-based launch company SpaceX to go into orbit.
In an article published Tuesday by the Russian-based wire service Interfax, the press secretary of the Ministry of Defense and Aerospace Industry, Aset Nurkenov, explained why. “The reason for using a Falcon 9 for this launch is that it will be less expensive,” he said. “The total cost is a commercial confidentiality that we cannot disclose at the request of the US launch provider.” (The Interfax article was translated for Ars by Robinson Mitchell).
Ultimately, Nurkenov said, the country would like to launch from Baikonur, from which Russian Soyuz and Proton missiles fly. He didn’t say when. Regardless, the US launch of Kazakh satellites brings an interesting new dynamic to the relationship between SpaceX and Russia, as the first satellite missions have drifted away from Russian missiles with lower costs and higher reliability.
The Kazakh satellites are part of an upcoming mission slated to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California no earlier than Nov. 19. This “SSO-A” mission is organized by a company called Spaceflight and is important to SpaceX. This mission is the first time that SpaceX will launch dozens of smaller satellites at once as part of what is known as a rideshare mission.
According to Spaceflight, which has purchased the entire Falcon 9 launch, more than 70 spacecraft from 35 different organizations will be launched for the mission into sun-synchronous low Earth orbit. This includes 15 microsats and 49 CubeSats, and it’s the largest rideshare mission ever flown by a US-based missile.
In a blog post last week, Spaceflight said the integration of customer payloads was finalizing and employees were now onsite at Vandenberg making final preparations for the mission.