Nowadays, many rockets transport more than one satellite in orbit. But how does a single rocket place multiple satellites into their orbits?

Do all rockets which place multiple satellites into orbit follow the same mechanism? What is the mechanism behind this?


2 Answers 2


Pearson's answer is technically correct for smaller satellites, which are flying pickaback as secondary payloads. But it is missing the big primary payloads. So for the sake of completeness, have a look at different Ariane 5 configurations:

enter image description here
Different types of upper section for Ariane 5. Credits: Esa/D.Ducros

A rather common strategy is to 'pile' two or more satellites on top of each other. The upper satellite sits directly inside the payload fairing. Any further satellite below is sitting inside some sort of an inner fairing. The relevant systems for the Ariane 5 are called 'SPELTRA' and 'SYLDA' payload dispensers / dual launch systems.

Depending on the satellites' needs, the upper stage of the rocket (the one directly below the payload dispenser), can be ignited multiple times (it needs to be designed in such a way). This is for instance done with the 4th stage of the Vega rocket. Then, you can deploy the satellites on rather different orbits with only one launch.

For further reading, have a look at the Ariane 5 User's Manual (e.g. page 1-7) or the Vega User's Manual.

However, 'piling' satellites is not the only technique. E.g. Russian Glonass satellites are launched right next to each other, virtually sharing a single payload adapter. This can be done if the satellites are build and designed in such a way, but it is usually not applicable if two totally different customers share a launch of e.g. an Ariane 5.

3 Glonass
Proton and Block DM upper stage mounted with 3 Glonass satellites

There are in fact 'user manuals' for virtually all commercially available rocket types and they are freely available. Buying a rocket is a bit like buying a house-hold-device, if you ignore the price tag - they come with manuals. You can google for them, they are amazing reads. There are various implementations for deploying multiple satellites from different rockets / launchers, so it is worth digging for them.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Maybe we need a meta post with launch manuals. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2013 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @DeerHunter Maybe a new section in here: meta.space.stackexchange.com/questions/249/… ? $\endgroup$
    – s-m-e
    Aug 25, 2013 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I've almost exclusively dealt with small sats, so that's where my expertise lies... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Aug 26, 2013 at 4:19

It really depends on the rocket, and mission, etc. But there is generally speaking a same common thread. The spacecraft are typically spring loaded on to the rocket, held in place by some sort of explosive bolts (Or other clamps) type technology. When the rocket is ready to release the spacecraft, it activates the explosive bolts, causing the spacecraft to be pushed away from the rocket at some speed.

A very simple example is the P-POD, used to deploy cubesats, pictured below, from PE0SAT. The door to the POD is closed until it receives the signal from the spacecraft, where it opens. The spring slowly deploys the spacecraft until they are all released.

enter image description here

For larger satellites, the satellites are typically placed around some sort of a ring, such as the ESPA ring from Moog pictured below. Essentially, the spacecraft lay hiding in the nose code, the ring deploys, and one at a time the spacecraft are deployed from the espa ring until everything has been deployed. There are similar systems with other names by other providers, but they all follow the same principals.

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Have ESPA rings been flown? It was my understanding that they still haven't been used in space, but that may be (very) old info. $\endgroup$
    – ChrisR
    Mar 26, 2021 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ They have been used by many satellites from 2012 on, including ORBCOMM and Iridium, and very likely many more that I'm less familiar with. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Mar 26, 2021 at 22:20

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