SpaceX Launches Maritime Industry's Future

Published Jun 26, 2017 9:34 PM by The Maritime Executive

Commercial rocket company SpaceX is helping satcom providers reshape maritime communications – and it's creating a "spaceport" cottage industry of its own. The firm's first-stage rockets return to earth by landing on refitted deck barges, which must unload at seaports – a new and novel cargo category for two port operators. 

SpaceX has launch contracts for Iridium Next, exactEarth AIS (on the same Iridium satellites) and Inmarsat Global Xpress. Inmarsat-5 Flight 4 took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in May, successfully deploying a Global Xpress satellite in geosynchronous orbit over the equator. The flight's first stage rocket made an uneventful landing on SpaceX's drone ship about nine minutes later (below).

As its teams gain experience, SpaceX has been picking up the pace of its operations. The firm conducted two launches over the past weekend, one at Kennedy Space Center on Friday for Bulgaria's Bulsatcom and a second at Vandenberg AFB on Sunday for a set of ten Iridium Next satellites. The Friday launch used a rebuilt first stage booster – a rocket that went up once before and landed at sea for refurbishment and reuse. It landed once again after Friday's flight, demonstrating the potential for lowering costs by recovering the sophisticated and expensive rockets. "Rocket is extra toasty and hit the deck hard (used almost all of the emergency crush core), but otherwise good," tweeted SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. 

The Sunday launch successfully deployed all ten Iridium satellites, and its booster touched down without incident on a pitching deck in choppy Pacific weather (video at top). It was SpaceX's 13th successful landing. 

A new line of port business?

SpaceX's drone ship landings have become a new business for the Port of Los Angeles and for Port Canaveral, Florida. For flights out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, SpaceX's drone ship Just Read the Instructions is based at a marina in San Pedro. For flights out of Kennedy Space Center, the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You is based at Port Canaveral. Port Canaveral's CEO and director, Captain John Murray, says that space flight support is an important and valuable addition to Port Canaveral's diversified operations – and that the business will only grow as other space flight firms arrive. Jeff Bezos’ “Blue Origin” rocket venture is said to be in talks with the Port, and Murray says that he’s received inquiries from multiple other companies in the space industry. 

This business line isn’t just port fees and wharfage, either. In addition to its activity alongside the pier, SpaceX leases four acres of on-site storage space at Port Canaveral for recovered rocket boosters and is considering a lease on an additional two acres of vacant land. 

Satcom launches benefit shipping

The latest SpaceX launch brings Iridium's “Iridium Next” constellation of 66 satellites closer to fruition. When fully deployed, Iridium Next will offer shipboard internet with speeds of up to 1.4 Mbps, very low latency and true global coverage. In addition, like the first generation of Iridium connectivity, there is no need for a mechanically stabilized satellite dish. 

The Next satellites also play host to a range of third-party payloads, like exactEarth's real-time satellite AIS detectors. exactEarth has offered satellite AIS tracking to commercial clients for years, but with the new Iridium Next payloads – called exactView RT – it will be able to deliver real-time AIS status for any transmitting vessel with a Class A transciever, anywhere in the world. Real time tracking has major implications for maritime security agencies, SAR forces and shipowners, who will all be able to keep up-to-the-minute tabs on marine traffic. exactView RT even offers detection of certain specially-equipped AIS Class B transcievers, the less powerful units typically fitted to fishing boats and other small vessels. 

"We live in a real-time world and we're deploying a major global real-time maritime data infrastructure," said Peter Mabson, CEO of exactEarth. "exactView RT provides global, continuous coverage which literally opens up a world of new application possibilities that are limited only by our imagination."