Electron Launcher of Rocket Lab
Satellite Missions of Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab is a US aerospace company with HQs in Los Angeles, CA, with a wholly owned New Zealand subsidiary. The company aims to develop low-mass, cost-effective commercial rocket launch services. The Electron Program was founded on the premise that small payloads such as CubeSats require dedicated small launch vehicles and flexibility not currently offered by traditional rocket systems. Rocket Lab’s mission is to remove the barriers to commercial space by providing frequent launch opportunities to LEO (Low Earth Orbit). 1) 2) 3)
Note: The former file ”Electron” was renamed to ”RocketLab” to account for the increased diversity of the Rocket Lab company.
Rocket Lab was founded and incorporated in 2006 by New Zealander Peter Beck, the company's CEO (Chief Executive Officer) and CTO (Chief Technical Officer). Internet entrepreneur and fellow New Zealander Mark Rocket was the seed investor and co-director from 2007 to 2011.
Rocket Lab was started in Auckland by New Zealander Peter Beck. In 2013, the company began expanding globally and established its headquarters in Los Angeles. Operations in Auckland continue to support the private orbital launch site Rocket Lab is currently constructing on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The Mahia launch site reaches the widest range of orbital azimuths of any launch site globally, and its remote location will enable rocket launches at an unprecedented frequency. 4)
The company has a rich history of developing propulsion systems and launch vehicles for a multitude of government and commercial customers. Rocket Lab has successfully launched over 80 sounding rockets and in 2009 became the first private company to reach space from the Southern Hemisphere.
The first launch of the Ātea-1 (Māori for 'space') suborbital sounding rocket occurred in late 2009. The 6 m long rocket with a mass of 60 kg was designed to carry a 2 kg payload to an altitude of 120 km. It was intended to carry scientific payloads or possibly personal items. Ātea-1 was successfully launched from Great Mercury Island (New Zealand) near the Coromandel Peninsula on 30 November 2009. The rocket was tracked by GPS uplink to the Inmarsat-B communications satellite, which permitted verification of payload apogee above the Kármán line; it touched down approximately 50 km downrange.
In 2013, the company began development of the two-stage Electron orbital rocket, designed to orbit small (or "mini") satellites. The effort included development of the Rutherford engine, named for the New Zealand-born British physicist Ernest Rutherford, to power Electron. Rutherford used brushless DC motors powered by lithium polymer batteries to power its turbopump, replacing the usual gas generator. Rocket Lab announced its Electron plans to the world in 2015. NASA awarded the company a Venture Class Launch Services contract on October 31, 2015. 5)
Electron Stage Testing: Electron was designed to orbit small satellites for about $4.9 million per mission. The design adopted innovative carbon composite tanks to hold both the kerosene fuel and the cryogenic liquid oxygen oxidizer. Nine Rutherford engines, each producing 1.739 tons of sea-level thrust at a 303 second vacuum specific impulse, powered the first stage. A single Rutherford Vacuum Engine powered the second stage, producing 2.268 tons thrust at a 333 second specific impulse.
Electron has a mass of 12.55 tons at liftoff, rising on 15.65 tons of thrust. It is 1.2 m in diameter and stands stand 17 m tall. Its first stage is 12.1 m tall, the second stage 2.4 m, and the payload fairing is 2.5 m in length. The rocket is designed to lift 150 kg payloads to a 500 km sun-synchronous orbit.
After the company sought and received U.S. capital, it established headquarters in Los Angeles, California and announced plans for some manufacturing to be done in the U.S. As the first launch approached, however, production, testing, and engineering remained in Auckland, New Zealand, and a single launch site had been built on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand's North Island. The launch site was completed on September 27, 2016.
On March 21, 2016, Rocket Lab announced that it had qualified its Rutherford engine for flight. Development spanned two years and more than 200 engine hot fire tests. One month later, the company announced that the Electron second stage had been qualified, with test firings on the company's test stand. The first stage was qualified on December 13, 2016.
Electron Second Stage with Rutherford Vacuum Engine: Rocket Lab delivered its first Electron vehicle to Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 at Mahia on February 16, 2017. A series of tests were planned before the rocket, named "It’s a Test", would be ready to fly. It would be the first of three planned test flights before Rocket Lab begins flying payloads for paying customers.
To support the Electron project development, Rocket Lab received investment from Silicon Valley-based Khosla Venture Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, Data Collective, Promus Ventures, as well as the aerospace company Lockheed Martin. The test program of the vehicle is scheduled to run throughout the second half of 2016 from Rocket Lab’s Mahia launch site. Customers publicly announced to fly on Electron vehicle include NASA, Moon Express and Spire (Ref. 4).
On March 22, 2017, Rocket Lab announced that it had garnered $75 million in new financing, bringing its total to $148 million. It also announced that it was opening an office in Huntington Beach, California that included production floor space.
This year alone Rocket Lab has qualified both the second stage of the vehicle and the Rutherford Engine which was developed in-house specifically for use on Electron. The qualification of the engine was a major milestone for 3D printing; Rutherford is the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use additive manufacturing for all primary components of its combustor and propellant supply system.
Electron Inaugural Falls Short of Orbit: Rocket Lab's Electron rocket fell short of orbit in its inaugural test launch from New Zealand on May 25, 2017. The new small launch vehicle, named "It's a Test", lifted off from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand's North Island at 04:20 UTC. The 17 m tall, 1.2 m diameter rocket, its innovative carbon composite case propellant tanks filled with kerosene and liquid oxygen, was slated to steer toward a south, south-east azimuth, rising on about 15.65 metric tons of thrust from its nine equally-innovative, electric-motor-pump-fed Rutherford engines.
Electron carried test instrumentation, rather than a revenue payload, on this test flight. The launch was not broadcast live and post-launch information was limited. Peter Beck reported that Electron had a good first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition, and fairing separation, but orbital velocity was not achieved. A 300 x 500 km orbit with an inclination of 83º orbit was planned.
The company did not give a cause for the failure. It did release several videos showing portions of the first stage flight. An on-board video showed a roll developing during ascent. Plans called for the first stage to burn for 2 minutes 30 seconds. Stage separation was to take place four seconds after first stage shutdown. The second stage's single vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine was then slated to fire for 4 minutes 48 seconds to reach orbital velocity.
The launch took place after several days of weather delays. Although orbit was not achieved, Peter Beck expressed satisfaction with the results of the heavily instrumented test flight- the first of three such test flights currently planned.
Electron Launch Vehicle
Rocket Lab is leading the way in delivering a one-of-a-kind service to small payload customers. Rocket Lab has sourced an extensive design and production team including Launch Vehicle, Propulsion and GNC (Guidance, Navigation and Control)engineers who are leaders in their respective fields across all disciplines of aerospace manufacture. The key to liberating the emerging small satellite industry lies in the pricing, availability, innovation and reliability of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle.
The Electron launch vehicle is the first orbital launch vehicle designed and manufactured by Rocket Lab. It is a two-stage vehicle servicing the emerging small satellite market and has been designed with a high flight rate in mind. Combining the latest manufacturing technologies with standardized analysis packages and multiple domestic launch ranges, Electron is optimized for quickly launching constellations of small satellites. Capable of launching 150 kg to a nominal 500 km sun-synchronous orbit from our Rocket Lab Launch Complex in New Zealand as well as from U.S. domestic ranges, Electron provides a primary payload quality launch service at a secondary payload price. 6) 7)
Figure 1: Illustration of the Electron launch vehicle and its elements (image credit: Rocket Lab) 8)
Electron’s design incorporates a fusion of both conventional and advanced liquid rocket engine technology coupled with innovative use of electrical systems and carbon fiber composites. The launch vehicle stands 17 m tall, with a diameter of 1.2 m and a lift off mass of 13,000 kg . Electron is designed to launch a 150 kg payload to a circular sun-synchronous orbit. Overall dimensions of Electron are summarized in Table 1.
Figure 2: Electron launch vehicle configuration (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Rutherford Engine: Electron’s Rutherford engines are named after notable New Zealand-born Physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871 – 1937), who split the atom in 1917 and challenged scientific thinking of the day. Rocket Lab’s flagship engine, the 22 kN Rutherford, is an electric turbo-pumped LOx/RP-1 engine specifically designed for the Electron launch vehicle.
Rutherford adopts an entirely new electric propulsion cycle, making use of brushless DC electric motors and high-performance lithium polymer batteries to drive its turbo-pumps.
Rutherford is also the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use additive manufacturing for all primary components, including the regeneratively cooled thrust chamber, injector pumps, and main propellant valves. Stage 2 features a larger expansion ratio for improved performance in near-vacuum-conditions. All aspects of the engine are designed, developed and manufactured at Rocket Lab.
Figure 3: Left: Rutherford electro turbo-pumped engine. Right: Rutherford Stage 1 configuration with nine engines (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Some design parameters:
Plug-In Payload: Electron’s payload fairing is designed to decouple payload integration from the main assembly. The all–carbon composite payload fairing is designed and manufactured in-house at Rocket Lab. Rocket Lab's standard process is to integrate payloads at the launch site in a traditional manner. With the Rocket Lab "Plug-In Payload" module, the customer can choose to manage this process using his own preferred facilities and personnel. Environmentally controlled or sealed payload modules are transported back to Rocket Lab where integration with the Electron vehicle can occur in a matter of hours.
The payload fairing is a split clam
shell design and includes environmental control for the payload.
Characteristics of the payload fairing are summarized in Table 2. The
fairing is constructed out of thin carbon composite sandwich panels on
either side. Each half of the fairing is
Table 2: Payload fairing characteristics
Carbon Composite Materials: Electron makes use of advanced carbon composite materials for a strong and lightweight flight structure. Through an extensive research program, Rocket Lab has developed carbon composite tanks that are compatible with liquid oxygen, providing impressive weight savings.
A New Propulsion Cycle: Rutherford is an oxygen/kerosene pump fed engine specifically designed in-house for Electron using an entirely new propulsion cycle. Its unique high-performance electric propellant pumps reduce mass and replace hardware with software.
3D Printing: Rutherford is the first oxygen/kerosene engine to use 3D printing for all primary components.
Avionics: Rocket Lab excels at producing high-performance miniature avionics and flight computer systems. The computing nodes make use of state-of-the-art FPGA architecture, allowing massive customization of function while retaining hardware commonality.
GNC (Guidance, Navigation and Control): The GNC systems are designed with emphasis on rapid configurability resulting in faster customer turnaround times. This enables Rocket Lab to achieve its goal of providing rapid and cost-effective launch capabilities of multi-satellite constellations. Avionics flight hardware is custom designed by Rocket Lab and includes flight computers and a navigation suite incorporating an IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit), GPS receiver and S-band transmitter which transmits telemetry and video to ground operations. Guidance and control algorithms are developed with flexibility of customer payload and orbit in mind and the combination of flight hardware, software and guidance and control algorithms is fully tested and validated using hardware-in-the-loop testing frameworks.
Figure 4: Photo of the GNC system (image credit: Rocket Lab)
RF communications: Electron provides telemetry to Rocket Lab ground stations via three S-band transmitters housed in the Stage 2 avionics bay alongside two FTS receivers and two GPS modules. The launch vehicle is equipped with the transmission and reception systems summarized in Table 3. The position of the vehicle is determined by two independent sources and transmitted to ground systems through telemetry links. Electron’s Stage 2 attenuates the launch vehicle transmissions during launch pad operations, flight and up to fairing separation. The S-band transmissions at this time will not radiate into the fairing environment and affect the payload, but Rocket Lab recommends the payload is switched off during the launch to minimize the risk of interference and damage to the payload. The spacecraft RF characteristics should be such that there is no interference with the launch vehicle RF systems listed in Table 3.
Figure 5: Electron payload fairing internal dimensions (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Figure 6: Payload electrical interfaces (image credit: Rocket Lab)
The Electron Launch Vehicle and Kick Stage
August 2019: Electron is currently the only fully commercial launch vehicle in operation dedicated solely to small satellites. Electron has been designed for rapid manufacture and launch to meet the rapidly evolving needs of the growing small satellite market. Capable of launching payloads of up to 225 kg, nominal Electron missions lift 150 kg to a 500 km sun-synchronous orbit from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. By late 2019, Rocket Lab will also launch Electron from Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA. 9)
All flight systems and launch vehicle components are designed, built and tested in-house at Rocket Lab(Figure 7).
The apogee kick stage can execute multiple burns to place numerous payloads into different, circularized orbits. It opens up significantly more orbital options, particularly for rideshare customers that have traditionally been limited to the primary payload’s designated orbit. Powered by Rocket Lab's 3D printed liquid propellant Curie engine capable of 120 N of thrust and multiple burns. 10)
Figure 8: Photo of the Electron Kick Stage including Curie engine (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Figure 9: Example of payloads mounted onto the Kick Stage (image credit: Rocket Lab)
On lift-off, Electron’s first stage is powered by nine of Rocket Lab’s in-house designed and manufactured engine, Rutherford. An electric turbo-pumped LOx/RP-1 engine specifically designed for the Electron Launch Vehicle, Rutherford adopts an entirely new electric propulsion cycle, making use of brushless DC electric motors and high-performance lithium polymer batteries to drive its turbo-pumps.
Rutherford is the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use additive manufacturing for all primary components, including the regeneratively cooled thrust chamber, injector pumps, and main propellant valves. Additive manufacturing of engine components allows for ultimate manufacturability and control.
Following fuel depletion, Electron’s first stage is jettisoned approximately 163 seconds following lift-off. Several seconds after this, a single vacuum optimized Rutherford engine ignites and continues to orbit carrying the Kick Stage and payloads (Figure 10). Approximately 540 seconds after lift-off, the Kick Stage and second stage separate. The Kick Stage’s engine, a 3D printed, bi-propellant engine name Curie, ignites and circularizes the orbit of the Kick Stage and its payloads. At precise, pre-defined intervals, payloads are then deployed to their specified orbits.
Following the deployment of all payloads, the Curie engine is capable of reigniting and maneuvering the Kick Stage into a highly elliptical orbit where it is experiences significant atmospheric drag at perigee and is pulled back into the Earth’s atmosphere where it is destroyed completely on re-entry. Because Electron’s second stage is also left in a highly elliptical orbit, it too experiences significant drag and is destroyed on reentry. The deorbiting process for Electron’s second stage can take as few as 12 days from launch. The deorbit time for the Kick Stage can be less than two hours after lift-off.
This complete process means Rocket Lab is capable of deploying customer satellites, then leaving no part of the Electron launch vehicle in orbit to add to orbital debris risk. This is crucial to ensuring the safe, responsible and sustainable use of space as a global domain as we enter an era of high-volume launch. The Kick Stage has flown on all five of Rocket Lab’s orbital launches to date.
Since Rocket Lab’s founding in 2006, the Kick Stage was always designed to be only the first step in Rocket Lab’s plans for a complete spacecraft platform. In April 2019, Rocket Lab announced the Photon spacecraft. Photon takes the existing Kick Stage and incorporates high power generation, high-accuracy attitude determination and control, and radiation-tolerant avionics to provide a bundled launch-plus-satellite offering to small satellite operators. Essentially, Rocket Lab is now a single-stop mission provider, delivering a spacecraft build and launch service together. This lets small satellite operators focus on their core purpose -their payload applications - without the needless distraction of developing or procuring a spacecraft platform (Ref. 9).
By using Photon’s flight-proven technology as their payload bus, small satellite operators can negate the need to scale teams of spacecraft engineers and commit capital to developing the satellite infrastructure to support their payload. This rapidly accelerates the timeframe to orbit for commercial and government small satellite customers alike, but it will also drastically reduce risk. A small percentage of small satellites are never contacted by the satellite operator following launch. In addition to the wasted time and capital of this failure phenomenon, this also adds nonfunctioning mass to orbit, further adding to orbital debris risks. By providing small satellite operators with a flexible, cost-effective and tailored spacecraft bus solution that is flight-proven, this risk can be reduced.
Photon is designed for a wide range of applications. At its most fundamental level, the platform serves as the Kick Stage, whereas advanced versions of Photon are enabled by augmenting the Kick Stage with high (kW class) power generation and precise attitude control capability. In its full performance configuration, Photon is an approximately 60 kg wet mass satellite platform that can carry up to 170 kg of useful payload, depending on orbit. Whereas in conventional launches, 30-60% of this payload capacity would be consumed by a satellite bus, the Photon platform makes the entire payload capacity of Electron useful for the customer. Photon specifications are outlined in Table 4.
In summary, to meet the growing launch demand of the small satellite industry, Rocket Lab is scaling its operations to become the most prolific launch provider in the world.
According to Space News, more than 100 small satellite launch companies in various stages of development hope to provide a service to orbit too, and the risks this poses to the longevity and safety of low Earth orbit as a useful domain are great. Through the Kick Stage, and now Photon program, Rocket Lab is addressing this immediate industry challenge in a unique and sustainable way, while continuing to provide the most frequent, reliable and cost-effective dedicated access to orbit for small satellites. 11)
• October 21, 2019: Extended range Photon missions to medium, geostationary and lunar orbits will support deeper space exploration and the return of human presence on the moon. 12)
Rocket Lab, the global leader in dedicated small satellite launch, has today unveiled plans to support extended range missions to medium, geostationary, and lunar orbits with the company’s Photon satellite platform.
Less than two years after opening access to low Earth orbit (LEO) for small satellites with the Electron launch vehicle, Rocket Lab is now bringing medium, geostationary, and lunar orbits within reach for small satellites. Rocket Lab will combine its Electron launch vehicle, Photon small spacecraft platform, and a dedicated bulk maneuver stage to accomplish extended-range missions and deliver small spacecraft to lunar flyby, Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO), L1/L2 points, or Lunar orbit. These capabilities can then be expanded to deliver even larger payloads throughout cis-lunar space, including as high as geostationary orbit (GEO).
Rocket Lab Founder and Chief Executive, Peter Beck, says there is increasing international interest in lunar and beyond LEO exploration from government and private sectors.
“Small satellites will play a crucial role in science and exploration, as well as providing communications and navigation infrastructure to support returning humans to the Moon – they play a vital role as pathfinders to retire risk and lay down infrastructure for future missions,” he says. “Just like LEO small spacecraft, many potential exploration instruments and full satellites are on shelves waiting for launch to deeper space. In the same way we opened access to LEO for smallsats, Rocket Lab is poised to become the dedicated ride to the Moon and beyond for small satellites.”
The experience gained through multiple orbital Electron launches, and iterative performance improvements to Photon’s Curie propulsion system, enables Rocket Lab to undertake extended range missions with proven technology and significant experience. All systems for extended missions are derived from high-heritage flight-proven equipment, including the Curie engine, Kick Stage, Electron composite tanks, and demonstrated expertise in launch and spacecraft guidance, navigation and control.
Rocket Lab’s most recent mission, ‘As The Crow Flies’, was the company’s 9th Electron launch and it saw Electron’s Kick Stage deploy a payload to an altitude of more than 1,000 km. The mission successfully demonstrated recent upgrades to the 3D-printed Curie propulsion system for Photon, including the move to a bi-propellant design for greatly improved performance.
Photon in particular was architected for use in both LEO and interplanetary missions, with radiation-tolerant avionics, deep space-capable communications and navigation technology, and high-performance space-storable propulsion capable of multiple restarts on orbit. The combination of Photon and Electron has been designed as a complete solution for responsive LEO, MEO and cis-lunar missions, as early as Q4 2020.
Reusability plans for Electron Rocket
• April 8 2020: Rocket Lab has successfully completed a mid-air recovery test – a maneuver that involves snagging an Electron test stage from the sky with a helicopter. The successful test is a major step forward in Rocket Lab’s plans to reuse the first stage of its Electron launch vehicle for multiple missions. The test took place in early March, before ‘Safer at Home’ orders were issued and before New Zealand entered Alert Level 4 in response to the COVID-19 situation. 13)
Figure 11: The midair capture test worked on the first try, Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview. “I wouldn’t say it was a walk in the park,” he said. “The helicopter pilot had to work for it, but he made it look pretty easy. Everything worked as it should have.” (video credit: Rocket Lab)
- The test was conducted by dropping an Electron first stage test article from a helicopter over open ocean in New Zealand. A parachute was then deployed from the stage, before a second helicopter closed in on the descending stage and captured it mid-air at around 5,000 ft, using a specially designed grappling hook to snag the parachute’s drogue line. After capturing the stage on the first attempt, the helicopter safely carried the suspended stage back to land.
- The successful test is the latest in a series of milestones for Rocket Lab as the company works towards a reusable first stage. On the company’s two most recent missions, launched in December 2019 and January 2020, Rocket Lab successfully completed guided the re-entries of Electron’s first stage. Both stages on those missions carried new hardware and systems to enable recovery testing, including guidance and navigation hardware, S-band telemetry and onboard flight computer systems, to gather data during the stage’s atmospheric re-entry. One stage was also equipped with a reaction control system that oriented the first stage 180-degrees for its descent, keeping it dynamically stable for the re-entry. The stage slowed from more than 7,000 km per hour to less than 900 km by the time it reached sea-level, maintaining the correct angle of attack for the full descent.
- Rocket Lab founder and chief executive, Peter Beck, says the successful mid-air recovery test is a major step towards increasing launch frequency by eliminating the need to build a new first stage for every mission.
- The next phase of recovery testing will see Rocket Lab attempt to recover a full Electron first stage after launch from the ocean downrange of Launch Complex 1 and have it shipped back to Rocket Lab’s Production Complex for refurbishment. The stage will not be captured mid-air by helicopter for this test, but will be equipped with a parachute to slow its descent before a soft landing in the ocean where it will be collected by a ship. This mission is currently planned for late-2020.
• August 6, 2019: Rocket Lab has revealed plans to recover and re-fly the first stage of its Electron launch vehicle. The move aims to enable Rocket Lab to further increase launch frequency by eliminating the need to build a new first stage for every mission. 14)
- Work on Rocket Lab’s Electron first stage reuse program began in late 2018, at the end of the company’s first year of orbital launches. The plan to reuse Electron’s first stage will be implemented in two phases. The first phase will see Rocket Lab attempt to recover a full Electron first stage from the ocean downrange of Launch Complex 1 and have it shipped back to Rocket Lab’s Production Complex for refurbishment. The second phase will see Electron’s first stage captured mid-air by helicopter, before the stage is transported back to Launch Complex 1 for refurbishment and relaunch. Rocket Lab plans to begin first stage recovery attempts in the coming year.
- A major step towards Rocket Lab’s reusability plans was completed on the company’s most recent launch, the Make It Rain mission, which launched on 29 June 2019 from Launch Complex 1. The first stage on this mission carried critical instrumentation and experiments that provided data to inform future recovery efforts. The next Electron mission, scheduled for launch in August, will also carry recovery instrumentation.
- Rocket Lab Founder and Chief Executive Peter Beck says reusing Electron’s first stage will enable Rocket Lab to further increase launch frequency by reducing production time spent building new stages from scratch.
- “From day one Rocket Lab’s mission has been to provide frequent and reliable access to orbit for small satellites. Having delivered on this with Electron launching satellites to orbit almost every month, we’re now establishing the reusability program to further increase launch frequency,” says Peter Beck. “Reusing the stage of a small launch vehicle is a complex challenge, as there’s little mass margin to dedicate to recovery systems. For a long time we said we wouldn’t pursue reusability for this very reason, but we’ve been able to develop the technology that could make recovery feasible for Electron. We’re excited to put that technology into practice with a stage recovery attempt in the coming year.”
Rocket Lab Facilities
Rocket Lab operates from a large combined office and factory production facility located close to Auckland Airport. The facility employs a team of engineers and technicians with production resources covering a wide scope of equipment and machinery, enabling rapid cost-effective fabrication of flight system and vehicle components (Ref. 6).
Rocket Lab operates a test facility situated within close proximity to the administration and factory facility in Auckland. Propulsion system tests primarily take place in this test facility. Rapid design, build and test schedules are made possible with such a conveniently located test cell.
Rocket Lab currently operates a private launch range at Mahia Peninsula located in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Future U.S. domestic launches will be occurring from both U.S. coasts via existing ranges. New Zealand’s Southern Hemisphere location offers Rocket Lab clients a unique launch environment as an island nation surrounded by open water and clear air.
Figure 12: New Zealand and its global location (image credit: Rocket Lab)
The main launch control center consists of workstations for each team, including the flight safety team, the payload team, the launch vehicle team and the launch director.
Figure 13: Rocket Lab Launch Complex at Mahia (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Launch site coordinates: 39.26º S, 177.86º E
Rocket Lab development status & events
• October 14, 2021: Rocket Lab’s acquisition of an aerospace software company is one of a series of deals it is considering, enabled in part by going public. 15)
- Rocket Lab announced Oct. 12 it has completed the purchase of Advanced Solutions, Inc. (ASI), a Colorado-based engineering company that develops flight software, simulation systems and guidance, navigation and control (GNC) systems. Rocket Lab is paying $40 million for the company, along with a potential bonus of as much as $5.5 million depending on ASI’s financial performance in 2021.
Figure 14: As part of Rocket Lab, Advanced Solutions Inc. (ASI) will support missions of Photon satellites and other aspects of Rocket Lab's space systems business (image credit: Rocket Lab)
- ASI and its team of nearly 60 employees will remain in Colorado under the leadership of ASI’s founder and chief executive, John Cuseo, supporting its existing customers while also incorporating its capabilities more closely into Rocket Lab’s overall business.
- “By coming together, we will continue to serve our customers and innovate in our areas of expertise, including space software and GNC, but now with more rocket fuel in the tank to play with,” Cuseo said in a statement. “We look forward to also becoming an integral part of Rocket Lab’s Space Systems business, supporting Photon missions, satellite components, and space and ground software.”
- In an Oct. 13 interview, Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said his company was familiar with ASI because it was a customer. “We used their software in some of our projects,” he said, adding that the “chemistry was right” between the companies.
- “Software is a really difficult niche to fill,” he said, particularly in aerospace where there are few “pure play” companies devoted exclusively to software. “Having 50 people with a huge amount of experience with complex programs made this a no-brainer.”
- The purchase of ASI was not Rocket Lab’s first acquisition. In the spring of 2020 it acquired Sinclair Interplanetary, a manufacturer of smallsat components such as reaction wheels. The deal is the first, though, since Rocket Lab went public in August by completing its merger with a special purpose acquisition company, Vector Acquisition Corp.
- One of the reasons why Rocket Lab went public, Beck has previously said, was to make it easier to do acquisitions like this. “Could we have done this as a private company? Probably,” Beck said, citing the Sinclair example. “But certainly being a public company makes it easier to do these deals.”
- Beck and other company executives have talked about acquiring other companies that have products or technologies complementary to its launch vehicle and spacecraft programs. In a September earnings call, Adam Spice, chief financial officer of Rocket Lab, said the company had about a half dozen potential deals under consideration.
- “There’s a lot of mom-and-pop bootstrapped companies where they’re founder-controlled,” Spice said. “They’re really nice businesses that are reasonably integratable, they’re digestible from that perspective. They’ve also had a focus on profitability, so you’re not picking up what are typically ventured-funded cash-burning operations. We’re seeing quite a bit of opportunity.”
- Beck confirmed in the interview that the company has up to a half dozen deals in various stages of consideration. “There are some really fantastic companies out there that, when combined with Rocket Lab, can really scale,” he said.
- Some companies have approached Rocket Lab about a sale, but Beck said more potential deals involve companies it is already working with. “We’re doing very targeted, very methodical acquisitions,” he said. “We’re not trying to buy everything.”
- The companies Rocket Lab considers buying also need to have similar cultures and ways of working, he said, with an emphasis on quality. “The bar is high in who we hire and even more so in who we acquire.”
• September 23, 2021: Rocket Lab will launch an Astroscale mission to rendezvous with a spent rocket stage in low Earth orbit, a prelude to eventually deorbiting the stage. 16)
- Rocket Lab announced Sept. 21 that it won a contract from Astroscale for the launch of its Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) spacecraft. A Rocket Lab Electron will launch ADRAS-J from its Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand in 2023.
- ADRAS-J will rendezvous with and inspect an upper stage left in orbit by a Japanese launch. The Japanese space agency JAXA awarded Tokyo-based Astroscale a contract in 2020 for the mission as part of its two-phase Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration project. The second phase, which will involve an attempt to deorbit the upper stage, has not yet been competed by JAXA.
Figure 15: Astroscale's ADRAS-J mission, to launch on a Rocket Lab Electron in 2023, will rendezvous with an inspect an upper stage from a Japanese rocket left in orbit (image credit: Astroscale)
- The mission requires a precise orbital insertion so that the spacecraft can reach the rocket stage. “Rendezvousing with a piece of debris on orbit, traveling at around 27,000 km/hr, is a highly complex task that requires absolute precision when it comes to orbital deployment,” Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said in a statement. “Electron’s Kick Stage has demonstrated this precision across 18 missions, providing in-space transportation to place our customers’ satellites exactly where they need to go.”
- In-situ inspection, like what ADRAS-J will perform, is one of several business lines for Astroscale, said Mike Lindsay, chief technology officer of the company, during a panel discussion at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies, or AMOS, Conference Sept. 15. Other lines of business include satellite life extension and transfer.
- Astroscale is best known, though, for developing technologies to enable deorbiting satellites at the end of their lives, as well as active debris removal. The company has been testing some of those technologies on its first spacecraft, End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d), which launched in March on a Soyuz rideshare mission.
- Astroscale performed the first release and capture of a client spacecraft on ELSA-d Aug. 25, deploying the small spacecraft from the main one and then capturing it using a magnetic mechanism. A series of more complex tests, including attempting to capture the client while tumbling, are scheduled for the next several months, Lindsay said.
- The launch contract is the second that Rocket Lab has announced this month. The company said Sept. 8 it won a contract for five Electron launches to deploy a 25-satellite internet-of-things constellation for French startup Kinéis. Those launches will begin in the second quarter of 2023.
• September 8, 2021: Rocket Lab will deploy an entire constellation of IoT (Internet of Things) satellites for a French startup under a multi-launch deal announced Sept. 8. 17)
- Rocket Lab said it will launch 25 satellites for Kinéis over five dedicated launches starting in the second quarter of 2023. The satellites will provide improved global IoT connectivity services for the company, which is backed by private investors and the French space agency CNES, and which raised 100 million euros in early 2020 to develop the constellation.
Figure 16: Rocket Lab will launch the 25-satellite constellation for Kinéis using five Electron launches starting in the second quarter of 2023 (image credit: Hemeria)
- “We are glad to entrust our constellation of 25 satellites to Rocket Lab,” Alexandre Tisserant, chief executive of Kinéis, said in a statement. He called Rocket Lab “the obvious choice as launch partner to activate our constellation at such a pace.”
- Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a recent phone interview that the schedule for deploying the full constellation will depend on when the satellites are ready. “It’s a constellation so the customer usually wants to get them up quick,” he said. “Our launch cadence is dictated by our customers’ willingness and ability to deliver the spacecraft.”
- The companies did not disclose the value of the launch contract. Beck said there’s “some discount” for bulk buys like this versus purchases of individual launches.
- The Kinéis deal is the second multi-launch contract for a constellation Rocket Lab has announced this year. In March, Rocket Lab announced a contract covering launches of eight BlackSky imaging satellites, arranged through Rocket Lab.
- “We are creating the market. We are the go-to guys for small constellation deployment,” Beck said. He called Kinéis a “very sophisticated customer” with requirements for placing the satellites into specific orbital planes at altitudes of 650 kilometers, which will be handled by Electron’s kick stage. “The orbital accuracy required for this particular constellation is incredibly tight. It’s only through the kick stage and Electron’s high accuracy that we’re able to deliver for this customer.”
- Beck said that the BlackSky and Kinéis contracts are a validation of the size of the Electron as some larger vehicles, with payload capacities of about one metric ton, enter the market. “The one-ton class, I don’t see how it fits,” he said. “It’s too large to do these kinds of dedicated launches that we do all the time, and too small to be a viable rideshare against the Falcon 9.”
- “From day one, we’ve been very analytical and very brutal about what we think the size should be,” he said of Electron, which can place up to 300 kg into low Earth orbit. “We must have done something right, because we’re busy as heck.”
- Rocket Lab had planned to begin a series of three consecutive Electron launches of BlackSky satellites in late August. That has been delayed, Beck said, by COVID restrictions in New Zealand, including a lockdown in Auckland. “The pandemic has reared its head, so it make it very difficult to conduct launch operations,” he said.
• August 21, 2021: Rocket Lab to go public through SPAC merger and develop medium-lift rocket. — Vector Acquisition Corporation (Nasdaq: VACQ) (“Vector”), a publicly traded special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) backed by leading technology investor Vector Capital, has announced that Vector’s shareholders voted to approve the company’s proposed merger with Rocket Lab USA, Inc. (“Rocket Lab” or the “Company”) at the firm’s annual, general meeting of shareholders that was held on August 20, 2021. 18)
- Vector also announced that holders of less than 3% of its Class A ordinary shares have properly exercised their right to redeem their shares in connection with the proposed merger. As a result, the gross amount of cash that that the combined company will receive from Vector’s trust account and concurrent PIPE financing upon the closing of these transactions, before transaction expenses, will equal approximately $777 million.
- The merger is scheduled to close on August 25, 2021, and the common stock and warrants of the combined company, which will be renamed “Rocket Lab USA, Inc.,” are set to commence trading on the Nasdaq Capital Market on August 25, 2021, under the new ticker symbols, “RKLB” and “RKLBW”, respectively.
- “Rocket Lab has created a sustainable, affordable and innovative path to space, a feat once considered nearly impossible. We look forward to further supporting the Company, which is poised to lead the fast-growing space launch, systems and applications markets,” said Alex Slusky, CEO of Vector and Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Vector Capital. “This is an important milestone for Vector and Rocket Lab, and we are grateful for our shareholders’ overwhelming support as Rocket Lab continues its journey to becoming a public company.”
- “This significant milestone accelerates our ability to unlock the full potential of space through our launch and spacecraft platforms,” said Peter Beck, Founder and CEO of Rocket Lab. “With the support of public shareholders, I’m excited to build on our established track record of mission success as we continue to transform the way we use and access space.”
• March 1, 2021: Rocket Lab, a developer of launch vehicles and smallsats, will merge with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) to support development of larger launch vehicle, part of the latest wave of deals to take space companies public. 19) 20)
- Rocket Lab announced March 1 that it will merge with Vector Acquisition Corporation, a SPAC established last year by venture capital fund Vector Capital. The deal is expected to close in the second quarter, with Rocket Lab then traded on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker symbol RKLB.
- The merger will provide Rocket Lab with up to $320 million from Vector Acquisition’s account. In addition, a concurrent private investment in public equity (PIPE) round, led by Vector Capital, BlackRock and Neuberger Berman, will provide $470 million. The merger will value Rocket Lab at $4.1 billion.
Figure 17: Rocket Lab said the funding it will get from its merger with the SPAC Vector Acquisition Corp. will support development of a new medium-class launch vehicle, Neutron (image credit: Rocket Lab)
- “This milestone accelerates Rocket Lab’s ability to unlock the full potential of space through our launch and spacecraft platforms and catalyzes our ambition to create a new multi-billion-dollar business vertical in space applications,” said Peter Beck, chief executive and founder of Rocket Lab, in a statement announcing the merger.
- “Rocket Lab is a once-in-a-generation company that is democratizing access to space through its constant innovation, leading technology and proven execution,” Alex Slusky, chief executive of Vector, said in the statement. Slusky will join the board of Rocket Lab once the merger closes. “Rocket Lab is ideally positioned to continue to capture market share in the rapidly expanding space launch, systems and applications markets.”
- Rocket Lab is best known for its Electron small launch vehicle, which has launched 18 times since 2017. The company is also working on a smallsat bus called Photon designed to be launched with Electron. It launched the first Photon satellite last August and will launch the second on the next Electron launch in mid-March.
- Rocket Lab had raised $288 million in several funding rounds, most recently $140 million in a Series E round in November 2018 that valued the company at more than $1 billion. Beck described that round as “a big keg of dry powder” to allow it to weather disruptions such as the pandemic, as well as support new initiatives like its Photon satellite bus and an ongoing effort to reuse the Electron’s first stage.
- The funding from the SPAC merger will enable another new initiative. Rocket Lab said it is working on a medium-class launch vehicle called Neutron, capable of placing up to 8,000 kg into low Earth orbit, more than 20 times the capacity of Electron. The company disclosed few technical details about Neutron, but said that it intends to make the first stage reusable through propulsive landing on an ocean platform, similar to SpaceX’s recovery of Falcon 9 first stages.
- The new vehicle is intended to support the growing interest in satellite megaconstellations. “Neutron’s eight-ton lift capacity will make it ideally sized to deploy satellites in batches to specific orbital planes, creating a more targeted and streamlined approach to building out megaconstellations,” Beck said in the statement.
- Rocket Lab had previously resisted building a larger vehicle. “There’s no market for it,” Beck said during a side session of the Smallsat Conference in August 2020. “If you build a larger rocket, you relegate yourself to being purely rideshare, and rideshare is really well-served.”
- “We’re not going to move the needle for anybody” with a larger rocket offering rideshare services, he continued. “Where we can move the needle is increasing the launch cadence of Electron and driving the cost down so people can use the advantage that dedicated launch really provides.”
- The first Neutron launch is scheduled for 2024 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia. The vehicle will leverage the infrastructure the company built at Launch Complex 2 there for the Electron rocket, which will make its debut from that pad later this year. Rocket Lab said it’s “assessing locations across America” for a factory that would handle large-scale production of Neutron.
- Rocket Lab is part of a surge of deals involving SPACs, which offer companies a faster route to going public than the traditional initial public offering process. Virgin Galactic merged with a SPAC, Social Capital Hedosophia, in 2019, a deal that raised $460 million for Virgin and allowed it to go public on the New York Stock Exchange in October 2019.
- In the last several months, four other space companies have announced plans to merge with SPACs. Last fall, in-space transportation company Momentus and satellite communications company AST SpaceMobile announced plans to merge with SPACs, deals that have yet to close. In February, small launch vehicle developer Astra and geospatial intelligence company BlackSky also announced mergers with SPACs.
- “I think that it was the Virgin deal that got most people looking at SPACs and charging ahead,” said James Murray of PJT Partners, an investment banking company, at the SmallSat Symposium in February. “I don’t think this is going to slow down in the very near future.”
Figure 18: Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck and Neutron. Neutron will build on Rocket Lab’s proven experience developing the reliable workhorse Electron launch vehicle, the second most frequently launched U.S. rocket annually since 2019. Where Electron provides dedicated access to orbit for small satellites of up to 300 kg (660 lb), Neutron will transform space access for satellite constellations and provide a dependable, high-flight-rate dedicated launch solution for larger commercial and government payloads (photo: Business Wire)
• NASA Awards Contract to Launch CubeSat to Moon from Virginia, FAA gives OK. — September 1, 2020: Rocket Lab has been granted a five-year Launch Operator License by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) for Electron missions from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2. 21)
The Launch Operator License allows for multiple launches of the Electron launch vehicle from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2, eliminating the need to obtain individual, launch-specific licenses for every mission and helping to streamline the path to orbit and enable responsive space access from U.S. soil.
Located at the MARS (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport) within the NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, Launch Complex 2 has been designed to provide responsive launch capability to support for U.S. government missions. Between Launch Complex 2 in Virginia and Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, Rocket Lab can support up to 130 launches each year across a range of orbital inclinations.
The FAA Launch Operator Licence is a major administrative milestone ahead of upcoming Electron launches, including a NASA mission to lunar orbit in support of Artemis, the Agency’s program to return humans to the Moon. The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission will use Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle and Photon satellite platform to deploy to the same unique lunar near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) that is planned for NASA’s future lunar outpost called Gateway. CAPSTONE intends to validate navigation technologies and verify the dynamics of this halo-shaped orbit to reduce risk for future spacecraft.
Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck, says: “Having FAA Launch Operator Licenses for missions from both Rocket Lab launch complexes enables us to provide rapid, responsive launch capability for small satellite operators. With 14 missions already launched from LC-1, Electron is well established as the reliable, flight proven vehicle of choice for small sat missions spanning national security, science and exploration. With our upcoming missions from Launch Complex 2, we’re ushering in an era of even more flexibility and launch availability for these important government missions.”
• February 14, 2020: NASA has selected Rocket Lab of Huntington Beach, California, to provide launch services for the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat. 22)
Rocket Lab, a commercial launch provider licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, will launch the 55-pound CubeSat aboard an Electron rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. After launch, the company’s Photon platform will deliver CAPSTONE to a trans-lunar injection. The engine firing will allow the CubeSat to break free of Earth’s gravity and head to the Moon. Then, CAPSTONE will use its own propulsion system to enter a cislunar orbit, which is the orbital area near and around the Moon. The mission is targeted for launch in early 2021 and will be the second lunar mission to launch from Virginia.
“NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) is pleased to provide a low-cost launch service for CAPSTONE and to work with Rocket Lab on this inaugural NASA launch from their new launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia,” said Ana Rivera, LSP program integration manager for CAPSTONE at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. LSP will manage the launch service.
“This mission is all about quickly and more affordably demonstrating new capabilities, and we are partnering with small businesses to do it,” said Christopher Baker, Small Spacecraft Technology program executive at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “This is true from the perspective of CAPSTONE’s development timeline, operational objectives, navigation demonstration and its quickly procured commercial launch aboard a small rocket.”
Following a three-month trip to the Moon, CAPSTONE will enter a near rectilinear halo orbit, which is a highly elliptical orbit over the Moon’s poles, to verify its characteristics for future missions and conduct a navigation demonstration with NASA’s LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter). CAPSTONE will serve as a pathfinder for the lunar spaceship Gateway, a key component of NASA’s Artemis program.
“CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the unique, seven-day cislunar orbit we are also targeting for Gateway,” said Marshall Smith, director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters. “We are not relying only on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”
The firm-fixed-price launch contract is valued at $9.95 million. In September, NASA awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado, to develop and operate the CubeSat.
After a final design review this month, Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc. of Irvine, California, will start building and testing the spacecraft.
CAPSTONE is managed by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. Advanced Exploration Systems within NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate supports the launch and mission operations.
Figure 19: Part of the MARS (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Launch Complex 2 is Rocket Lab’s second launch site for the Electron rocket. Rocket Lab will launch NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat mission to the Moon from the Virginia launch site in early 2021 (image credit: Rocket Lab)
• Rocket Lab selects Wallops Flight Facility for US launch site. — On 17 October 2018, US orbital launch provider Rocket Lab has confirmed it will build its first US launch pad for the Electron rocket at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA. The site will be Rocket Lab’s second dedicated launch complex and builds on Rocket Lab’s existing ability to launch up to 120 times annually from the world’s only private launch site, Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, in New Zealand. 23)
Launch Complex 2 will be capable of supporting monthly orbital launches and is designed to serve US government and commercial missions. The site brings Rocket Lab’s global launch availability across two launch complexes to more than 130 missions per year. The option to select from two launch sites adds an extra layer of flexibility for small satellite customers, offering an unmatched ability to rapidly deploy space-based assets with confidence and precision from a preferred location.
“Accessing space should be simple, seamless and tailored to our customers’ missions - from idea to orbit. Launching from a second pad builds n Rocket Lab’s ability to offer the small satellite industry unmatched schedule and launch location flexibility,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “Having proven the Electron vehicle with a successful orbital launch this year, we’re thrilled to expand on our ability to provide rapid, reliable and affordable access to orbit for small satellites.”
“We’ve worked closely with the experienced and welcoming teams from Virginia Space and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops to design a pad and processes that will enable an agile and streamlined approach to small satellite launch on US soil,” he added.
Rocket Lab will work with Virginia Space to construct dedicated pad infrastructure at the site, tailored to the Electron launch vehicle. In addition to the pad, Rocket Lab will develop a Launch Vehicle Integration and Assembly Facility in the Wallops Research Park to support the simultaneous integration of up to four Electron vehicles. The facility will also contain a control room with connectivity to LC-2 (Launch Complex-2), as well as dedicated customer facilities. This new facility, combined with the purpose-built gantry located at LC-2, will provide significant and dedicated vehicle processing capability and flexibility to meet Rocket Lab’s high launch cadence.
Through construction and day-to-day operations, Rocket Lab expects to create around 30 jobs immediately to directly support Launch Complex 2, with this number predicted to increase to approximately 100 as launch frequency increases. The development of Launch Complex 2 will also see Rocket Lab continue to expand Electron rocket production at the company’s headquarters in Huntington Beach, California, to supply complete launch vehicles for government and commercial customers.
List of Rocket Lab Launches
The following chapters list the various launches of Rocket Lab in reverse order.
The initial test flight, called "It's a Test", failed due to a glitch in communication equipment on the ground, but the follow-up missions, called "Still Testing", "It's Business Time" and "This One's For Pickering", delivered multiple small payloads to low Earth orbit. 24)
- Rocket Lab has completed an internal review of data from its 25 May 2017 test flight of its Electron rocket. The review found the launch had to be terminated due to an independent contractor’s ground equipment issue, rather than an issue with the rocket. Rocket Lab’s investigation board has identified the root causes and corrective actions.
- The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), the primary body responsible for licensing the launch, has overseen Rocket Lab’s comprehensive investigation and will review the findings.
- Rocket Lab’s engineers have spent the last two months working through an extensive fault tree analysis to ensure all factors that may have influenced the outcome of the launch were thoroughly evaluated. The investigation involved the review of over 25,000 channels of data collected during the flight in addition to extensive testing at Rocket Lab facilities in California and New Zealand.
- Rocket Lab’s investigation team determined the launch, named ‘It’s a Test’, was terminated due to a data loss time out, which was caused by misconfiguration of telemetry equipment owned and operated by a third-party contractor who was supporting the launch from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1.
- Four minutes into the flight, at an altitude of 224 km, the equipment lost contact with the rocket temporarily and, according to standard operating procedures, range safety officials terminated the flight. Data, including that from Rocket Lab’s own telemetry equipment, confirmed the rocket was following a nominal trajectory and the vehicle was performing as planned at the time of termination.
- “We have demonstrated Electron was following its nominal trajectory and was on course to reach orbit,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab CEO. “While it was disappointing to see the flight terminated in essence due to an incorrect tick box. We can say we tested nearly everything, including the flight termination system. We were delighted with the amount of data we were able to collect during an exceptional first test launch.
- Rocket Lab’s telemetry systems provided data verifying Electrons capabilities and providing us with high confidence ahead of our second test flight. The call to terminate a launch would be tough for anyone, and we appreciated the professionalism of the flight safety officials involved.”
- The telemetry data loss that led to the termination of the flight has been directly linked to a key piece of equipment responsible for translating radio signals into data used by safety officials to track the vehicle performance. It was discovered a contractor failed to enable forward error correction on this third-party device causing extensive corruption of received position data. The failure was first indicated by the fact that Rocket Lab’s own equipment did not suffer similar data loss during launch. Further confirmation of the cause was demonstrated when replaying raw radio-frequency data - recorded on launch day - through correctly configured equipment also resolved the problem.
- The fix for the issue is simple and corrective procedures have been put in place to prevent a similar issue in future. No major changes to the Electron launch vehicle hardware have been required and the company has authorized the production of four additional launch vehicles as it prepares for commercial operations ahead of the test flight program. Rocket Lab’s second Electron rocket, named ‘Still Testing’, is undergoing final checks and preparations ahead of being shipped to Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 shortly.
Table 5: Completed missions of Rocket Lab in reverse order
It’s a Little Chile Up Here
• July 29, 2021: Rocket Lab has successfully launched a research and development satellite to orbit for the United States Space Force (USSF). The mission was Rocket Lab’s fourth launch for the year and its 21st Electron mission overall. The mission, named ‘It’s a Little Chile Up Here’,was launched was from Complex 1 on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula at 06:00 UTC / 18:00 NZT on 29 July 2021. 25)
- A single AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory)-sponsored demonstration satellite called Monolith was deployed to low Earth orbit by the Electron launch vehicle in Rocket Lab’s second mission for the USSF. Monolith will demonstrate the use of a deployable sensor, where the sensor’s mass is a substantial fraction of the total mass of the spacecraft, changing the spacecraft’s dynamic properties and testing ability to maintain spacecraft attitude control. Analysis from the use of a deployable sensor aims to enable the use of smaller satellite buses when building future deployable sensors such as weather satellites, thereby reducing the cost, complexity, and development timelines.
- The mission was procured by the Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program (STP) and the Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP), both based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.; in partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) as part of the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI). The mission is being managed by the Launch Enterprise’s Small Launch and Targets Division, which is part of the USSF’s launch organization of choice. The mission has been named ‘It’s a Little Chile Up Here’ in a nod to the beloved green chile of New Mexico where the Space Test Program is based.
- “Congratulations to all the teams behind Monolith. We’re proud to have safely delivered another mission to orbit for the United States Space Force,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “Programs like the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative are shining a light on the crucial role small launch can play in supporting fast-paced innovation in orbit to support innovation and space capabilities.”
Orbit: Near circular orbit of ~600 km altitude and an inclination of 37º.
According to Rocket Lab, the Monolith satellite was built by the non-profit Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University, it "will explore and demonstrate the use of a deployable sensor, where the sensor's mass is a substantial fraction of the total mass of the spacecraft, changing the spacecraft's dynamic properties and testing ability to maintain spacecraft attitude control.” - "Analysis from the use of a deployable sensor aims to enable the use of smaller satellite buses when building future deployable sensors such as weather satellites, thereby reducing the cost, complexity and development timelines," they added. "The satellite will also provide a platform to test future space protection capabilities."
Running Out of Toes
• July 19, 2021: Rocket Lab said July 19 that it has identified the cause of an Electron launch failure more than two months ago and that the vehicle is ready to return to flight. 26)
- The Electron rocket failed to reach orbit in a May 15 launch from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Shortly after stage separation, the upper stage’s single Rutherford engine ignited but appeared to shut down seconds later. The company declared the vehicle lost about a half-hour later.
- Rocket Lab said an investigation by the company traced the root cause to the rocket’s second stage engine igniter system. A problem with the igniter corrupted signals in the computer on the stage, which in turn caused the thrust vector control system to “deviate outside nominal parameters.” The engine computer then shut down the Rutherford engine.
- The igniter problem, the company said, resulted from “a previously undetectable failure mode within the ignition system that occurs under a unique set of environmental pressures and conditions” not noticed in previous testing of the engine or on previous Electron launches. Engineers have replicated the problem in the lab and created what Rocket Lab called “redundancies” in the ignition system, including changes to the design of the igniter and how it is manufactured, to prevent the problem from happening again.
- The failure was the second in less than a year for the Electron, one of the leading commercial small launch vehicles. An Electron launch failed in July 2020 because of what the company said was an “anomalous electrical connection” in the second stage that had evaded acceptance testing. The Electron returned to flight less than two months later.
- Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said after that earlier failure that the company would take other steps to improve overall reliability in addition to correcting the specific issue that caused the failure. “We took a big step back and a had a look across the whole vehicle, and as a result we’ve made a bunch of changes to work instructions and quality signoffs,” he said then.
- Beck said June 2 that the more recent launch failure was “complex” and required “an intricate and layered failure analysis.” At that time, Rocket Lab said they had replicated the failure in the lab and were working to understand the sequence of events that led up to it and what steps they needed to take to correct it.
- Rocket Lab said in a statement that the next Electron will be “back on the pad” later in July but did not specify a launch date or payload. A company spokesperson said that the launch window for Electron’s return-to-flight mission will open later in the month.
• May 18, 2021: Rocket Lab said an Electron rocket failed to reach orbit May 15 when the vehicle’s computer system detected a problem with the second stage engine and shut it down. 27)
- The company said initial reviews of the data “suggest an engine computer detected an issue shortly after stage 2 engine ignition, causing the computer to command a safe shutdown as it is designed to do.” The company added it had not seen that behavior before in testing of the engines, including a full-duration static fire of the stage.
- “We are methodically working through the review process to address the issue,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in the statement, adding that the company was “confident in a swift and reliable return to flight with minimal impact on our launch manifest this year.”
- This was the second failure in less than a year for the Electron. The company determined a July 2020 launch failure was caused by an “anomalous electrical connection” in the second stage that, like this latest issue, evaded previous testing. The Electron returned to flight nearly two months after the failure on the first of six successful launches prior to this latest failure.
- Rocket Lab also said that the failure and investigation would not affect its plans to merge with Vector Acquisition Corporation, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). Rocket Lab announced the merger March 1, with a goal of completing the merger in the second quarter of this year.
- Rocket Lab said it and Vector confidentially filed an S-4 registration statement regarding the merger with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission May 4, and that they “continue to work towards the completion of the transaction.” The companies did not provide an updated schedule for completing the merger, however.
- The customer of this launch, geospatial intelligence company BlackSky, is also in the process of merging with a SPAC, a deal it announced in February and said at the time it expected to close in July. Brian O’Toole, chief executive of BlackSky, downplayed the impact of the failure on the company in a May 15 statement. “BlackSky has additional satellites ready to deploy, as well as an active production line with more satellites on track to be delivered over the course of this year,” he said. “We will continue to execute on the expansion of our constellation and expect to remain on track to meet our business objectives.”
- Ahead of the launch, Rocket Lab played up the mission as another step in its efforts to make the first stage of the Electron reusable. The company planned to recover the stage to test the effectiveness of enhancements made to the vehicle after a November 2020 launch and recovery.
- Rocket Lab said that the first stage appeared to perform as expected and did not contribute to the failure. The stage splashed down under parachute and a recovery team placed it on a boat to return to the factory. The heat shield at the base of the first stage, upgraded for this launch, worked well, and the engines will later undergo hot-fire testing.
- “Rocket Lab’s program to make Electron a reusable launch vehicle is advancing quickly and the company intends to conduct its third recovery mission later this year,” the company said in its statement, the same schedule it offered before the failure.
• May 15, 2021: An issue was experienced during today's launch, resulting in the loss of the mission. We are deeply sorry to our launch customers BlackSky and Spaceflight. The issue occurred shortly after stage two ignition. More information will be provided as it becomes available. 28)
• May 15, 2021: A Rocket Lab Electron rocket failed to reach orbit May 15 when its second stage engine shut down seconds after ignition, the second launch failure in less than a year for the company. 29)
- The Electron vehicle lifted off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 11:12 UTC (7:12 a.m. EDT). The liftoff was delayed by a little more than an hour because of upper-level winds.
- The first stage of the vehicle appeared to perform as expected. The second stage then separated and ignited its single Rutherford engine. However, video from the rocket broadcast on the company’s webcast of the mission showed that engine shutting down seconds later. Telemetry from the launch indicated the vehicle was slowing down before that telemetry was removed from the webcast.
- “An issue was experienced during today’s launch, resulting in the loss of the mission,” the company announced on social media nearly a half-hour after liftoff. “We are deeply sorry to our launch customers BlackSky and Spaceflight. The issue occurred shortly after stage two ignition.” The company did not immediately release additional information about the issue.
- “Our team is working hard to identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement two hours after launch. “Our team is resilient, and our top priority remains to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers. We will learn from this, and we’ll be back on the pad again.”
- The rocket was carrying two imaging satellites for geospatial intelligence company BlackSky. The launch was the first of four dedicated missions under a contract announced earlier this year through launch services company Spaceflight. The previous Electron launch, in March, also carried a BlackSky satellite as part of a rideshare mission.
- The launch is the second failure of the Electron in less than a year, and the third in 20 launches. A July 2020 launch failed to reach orbit when the second-stage engine shut down nearly six minutes after liftoff. An investigation blamed the failure on faulty electrical connections in the stage. The vehicle returned to flight nearly two months later.
- The first Electron launch, in 2017, also failed when a telemetry problem for range safety equipment triggered an abort several minutes after liftoff.
- The focus on this launch was to be the company’s efforts to recover the rocket’s first stage as part of its efforts to eventually reuse those boosters. The company implemented improvements to the booster’s heat shield, among other changes, based on data collected during the first booster recovery in November 2020.
- Rocket Lab said in its statement that the booster “safely completed a successful splashdown under parachute” and that crews on the recovery ship were working to retrieve the booster.
• April 8, 2021: Rocket Lab today announced that on its next mission the company will attempt to bring a rocket back from space, slowing the Electron launch vehicle down from speeds of Mach 8 as it reenter’s Earth’s atmosphere before splashing the rocket down in the ocean. The complex mission is the next major step toward making Electron the first orbital-class reusable small launch vehicle, enabling rapid-turnaround launches for small satellites. 30)
- Scheduled for launch in May 2021 from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, the ‘Running Out of Toes’, mission will be Rocket Lab’s 20th Electron launch overall and the second of three planned ocean splashdown recovery missions. The mission will see Electron deploy two Earth-observation satellites for BlackSky’s global monitoring constellation. While Electron’s second stage delivers the satellites to orbit, Electron’s first stage will undertake a series of complex maneuvers designed to enable the stage to survive the extreme heat and forces of atmospheric re-entry on the way back to Earth.
- As the rocket reaches speeds of around eight times the speed of sound on its descent, the air around Electron heats up to 2,400 °C generating an extremely hot plasma that creates a red-orange glow around the re-entering stage. Because Electron will enter the atmosphere engines first, the nine 3D printed Rutherford engines on the first stage will bear the brunt of this extreme heating. To withstand the immense temperatures, this Electron features an evolved heat shield designed to protect the engines and direct the force of the plasma away from the rocket. After entering the atmosphere, Electron will deploy a drogue parachute to help begin the process of slowing the rocket down and stabilizing its descent. Once Electron is at subsonic speeds, a circular parachute is deployed to help further slow the rocket in preparation for a gentle ocean splashdown. A Rocket Lab vessel will then rendezvous with the stage in the splashdown zone, approximately 650 km from Launch Complex 1, and retrieve it for transport back to Rocket Lab’s Production Complex for inspection.
- ‘Running Out of Toes’ follows on from Rocket Lab’s first recovery mission, ‘Return to Sender’, which launched in November 2020 and saw the company successfully deploy the parachute system and recover a stage from an ocean splashdown for the first time. In doing so, Rocket Lab became only the second company to successfully recover an orbital class booster from space. The ‘Running Out of Toes’ mission is designed to validate the findings from the first recovery mission and to test updated systems including the new advanced heat shield.
- “Reusability is hard for any launch vehicle, but it’s a particularly complex challenge for small rockets. The Return to Sender mission proved we could successfully bring Electron back from space. Now it’s about validating re-entry data a second time and starting to introduce the advanced systems that will enable us to launch, catch and repeat,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “Electron is already the second most frequently launched U.S. rocket. Reusability will enable us to further increase launch cadence giving our customers on-demand access to space.”
- Following the successful completion of the ocean splashdown tests this year, Rocket Lab intends to move into the final phase of the recovery program - mid-air recovery. Using this approach, Electron stages will be captured mid-air by a helicopter.
- While Electron is designed for mid-air capture, Rocket Lab’s newest launch vehicle, the 8,000 kg class Neutron rocket under development, is designed for propulsive landing. This process will see Neutron’s engines reignite during the re-entry phase to slow the stage’s descent before landing legs are deployed to enable a vertical landing on an ocean platform.
They Go Up So Fast
• March 23, 2021: Rocket Lab's 19th Electron mission deployed a range of satellites for commercial and government satellite operators, as well as placed a next-generation Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft in orbit to build spacecraft heritage ahead of Rocket Lab’s mission to the Moon for NASA later this year. The satellites were launched at 23:30 UTC on 22 March 2021 (corresponding to 11:30 NZT on 23 March) from Launch Complex 1 at Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. 31)
Seven satellites featured on the mission manifest, including:
- An Earth-observation satellite for BlackSky via launch services provider Spaceflight Inc. The BlackSky payload is an Earth-observation microsatellite (56 kg) that captures high-resolution images of the planet. BlackSky uses artificial intelligence to analyze and make sense of satellite images to track trends from a region's economic recovery from COVID-19 through to international cargo transport. This is the seventh launch of a Gen-2 spacecraft to date.
- Two Internet-Of-Things (IoT) nanosatellites for companies Fleet Space and Myriota, procured by Tyvak. Centauri 3 is a newly-designed 6U NanoSat that will join Fleet Space’s planned constellation of 140 Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) satellites in low Earth orbit. - Myriota is the global leader in low-cost, secure satellite connectivity for the Internet of Things (3U CubeSat). Myriota 7 is the latest addition to its satellite constellation, and forms part of a crucial next step for the business, as it moves towards near-real time connectivity. It will support Myriota’s customers by further improving its existing service, which provides access to data from anywhere on Earth.
- A technology demonstration satellite for the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra Space. The M2 mission, a collaboration between UNSW Canberra Space and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), brings together emerging technologies that deliver advanced capabilities in Earth observation, maritime surveillance, and satellite communications.
- A weather satellite pathfinder technology demonstration from Care Weather technologies. The Veery Hatchling mission will test Care Weather's vertically-integrated satellite power, computing, and avionics systems in a 1U CubeSat. It paves the way for Care Weather's future constellation of scatterometric radar weather satellites capable of producing hourly maps of global wind speed and direction over the surface of the ocean. Veery Hatchling is the first step in Care Weather's mission to save lives and livelihoods by better forecasting Earth's extreme weather.
- A technology demonstrator (3U CubeSat, called Gunsmoke-J) for the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) through launch integration and program management services provider, TriSept.
- The final payload on this mission was Rocket Lab’s in-house designed and built Photon Pathstone. The spacecraft will operate on orbit as a risk reduction demonstration to build spacecraft heritage ahead of Rocket Lab’s mission to the Moon for NASA later this year, as well as Rocket Lab's private mission to Venus in 2023. Photon Pathstone will demonstrate power management, thermal control, and attitude control subsystems, as well as newly-integrated technologies including deep-space radio capability, an upgraded RCS (Reaction Control System) for precision pointing in space, and sun sensors and star trackers. Pathstone is the second Photon spacecraft to be deployed to orbit, following the launch of Photon First Light in August 2020.
Orbit: Near-circular orbit of 550 km altitude, inclination of 45º.
Figure 20: In addition to launching six smallsats, the latest Electron mission includes "Photon Pathstone," a second test of the company's smallsat bus (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Another One Leaves the Crust
• January 20, 2021: This mission, named GMS-T by OHB Group, launched at 07:26 UTC (20:26 NZT) a single communication microsatellite for OHB Group that will enable specific frequencies to support future services from orbit. The launch was Rocket Lab’s 18th Electron mission and was procured for OHB Group through OHB Cosmos International Launch Service GmbH, the launch service division of OHB Group. OHB Cosmos is responsible for launching the spacecraft built by the Group's satellite manufacturers based in Germany, Sweden, and Czech Republic. 32)
- Electron released the sole satellite on the mission, GMS-T, 70 minutes after liftoff. “Perfect orbit, payload deployed. Hello 2021!” tweeted Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab. 33)
- The payload for this mission has been shrouded in secrecy since Rocket Lab announced the planned launch Jan. 5. The name of the satellite itself was not disclosed by OHB until after liftoff, and a press kit for the mission did not include the satellite’s mass or orbital altitude, stating only that it was going into an orbit at an inclination of 90 degrees.
• March 18, 2021: ENPULSION, the market leader in small satellite propulsion with more than 60 thrusters in space, confirmed the first successful in-orbit commissioning and first uses of its new ENPULSION MICRO R3 thruster. 34)
- Its partner OHB Sweden said in a statement: "We are keen to report on GMS-T that the in-orbit commissioning and first uses of the ENPULSION MICRO Thruster have been completed as expected in the mission. The GMS-T mission is based on OHB Sweden's InnoSat-light platform (for more info on InnoSat, please refer to the website of OHB Sweden)."
- Within the GMS-T mission OHB Sweden is the prime contractor for the design, development, integration and test of the Innosat-based platform of a small telecommunication satellite (50 kg class).
Figure 21: A Rocket Lab Electron lifts off Jan. 20 from Launch Complex 1 carrying the GMS-T communications satellite built by OHB (image credit: Rocket Lab)
- This satellite will be used for delivering signals for the Bringing Into Use (BIU) of telecommunication frequencies for an international commercial customer. The company is also responsible on full system level for the spacecraft integration and testing activities. GMS-T was launched on the 20th of January 2021 onboard Rocket Lab's 18th Electron launch mission "Another One Leaves The Crust".
- The ENPULSION MICRO R3 is part of the new R3 class of thrusters that ENPULSION has developed together with several large heritage satellite manufacturers and space agencies to establish a new standard of reliability in the NewSpace Propulsion sector.
- The ENPULSION MICRO R3 produces up to 1.3 mN of thrust with an input power of 120 W and provides up to 50 kNs of total impulse, which makes it particularly adapted to small and medium size spacecraft.
- It can be launched safely on any rocket as it contains no pressure vessels or energetic chemical. Its high specific impulse and the unrivaled control precision are perfect for station keeping and attitude control.
- End-of-life operations can be performed at the most optimal operation point depending on remaining propellant quantities. The design incorporates lessons learned from many acceptance tests and in-orbit performances of the ENPULSION NANO.
Figure 22: The ENPULSION MICRO R3 produces up to 1.3 mN of thrust with an input power of 120 W and provides up to 50 kNs of total impulse, which makes it particularly adapted to small and medium size spacecraft (image credit: ENPULSION, Wiener Neustadt, Austria)
• January 28,2021: Rocket Lab stretched the performance of the kick stage of its Electron rocket on its most recent launch, the first in a series of milestones the company has set out for this year. 35)
- During the Jan. 20 launch (of ”Another One Leaves the Crust”), Electron’s kick stage placed its payload, a satellite built by German company OHB Group, into a circular orbit at an altitude of 1,200 kilometers. The kick stage fired again to lower the perigee of its orbit by 740 kilometers to accelerate its eventual reentry.
- “The last launch was quite a complicated one,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview. Most Electron missions deploy their payloads at an altitude of about 500 kilometers, so the kick stage needed to fire its Curie engine for more than twice the duration of a standard mission. That kick stage carried double the number of propellant tanks to carry out that mission profile.
- Neither Rocket Lab nor OHB have released many details about the satellite on that mission, GMS-T, other than it is a “50-kilogram class” communications satellite. Beck, though, said that contrary to some suggestions that GMS-T is for a Chinese company, the satellite is “100% European.” More recent speculation has linked the project to Thales Alenia Space to bring into use spectrum originally intended for LeoSat.
- The demonstration of the kick stage’s enhanced performance is the first of several milestones Rocket Lab plans for 2021. The next Electron launch, currently scheduled for March, will include the company’s second Photon satellite along with several commercial payloads.
- Beck said Rocket Lab will use the Photon to perform testing to prepare for its launch of NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission to the moon, which will use Photon as a translunar injection stage. “The maneuvers for the CAPSTONE mission are very, very difficult,” he said. “This is all about building heritage on components and processes.”
- CAPSTONE is scheduled for launch in the second quarter on an Electron flying out of Launch Complex 2 in Wallops Island, Virginia. That schedule depends on final NASA certification of the autonomous flight termination system for the rocket, a process that has been delayed for months. Beck said the company was still hopeful that the system will be approved in time to keep the launch on that schedule.
• January 5, 2021: Rocket Lab has today announced its first Electron launch of the new year will be a dedicated mission for European space technology company OHB Group. 36)
This dedicated mission, named ‘Another One Leaves the Crust,’ is scheduled for lift-off during a 10-day launch window opening on January 16 NZT/UTC. Encapsulated inside Electron’s fairing will be a single communication microsatellite that will enable specific frequencies to support future services from orbit. The launch will be Rocket Lab’s 18th Electron mission and was procured for OHB Group through OHB Cosmos International Launch Service GmbH, the launch service division of OHB Group. OHB Cosmos is responsible for launching the spacecraft built by the Group's satellite manufacturers based in Germany, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.
The mission will launch from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula to an initial elliptical orbit, then Electron’s Kick Stage will perform a series of burns with its relightable Curie engine to raise apogee and act as a space tug to deliver the OHB Cosmos’ payload to its precise orbital destination. Following payload deployment, the Kick Stage will perform a de-orbit burn to lower its perigee where it will experience greater atmospheric drag, enabling it to re-enter and burn up faster to avoid becoming space junk. Rocket Lab will not be attempting to recover Electron’s first stage for this mission.
Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, Peter Beck, says: “We’re proud to be delivering a speedy and streamlined path to orbit for OHB Group on this mission, with launch taking place within six months of contract signing. By flying as a dedicated mission on Electron, OHB and their mission partners have control over launch timing, orbit, integration schedule, and other mission parameters.”
'Another One Leaves the Crust’ is the first mission in a packed launch manifest for 2021, which includes multiple dedicated and rideshare small satellite missions for both government and commercial customers. This year will also see Rocket Lab launch a Photon mission to the Moon in support of NASA’s CAPSTONE program, and also launch the first missions from Rocket Lab’s two additional launch pads – Launch Complex 2 in Wallops, Virginia, and the new Pad B at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.
The Owl's Night Begins
• December 15, 2020: Rocket Lab's 17th mission was a dedicated launch for Japanese Earth-imaging company Synspective. The mission was named ‘The Owl’s Night Begins’ in a nod to Synspective’s StriX family of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) spacecraft developed to be able to image millimeter-level changes to the Earth’s surface from space, independent of weather conditions on Earth and at any time of the day or night. Strix is also the genus of owls. 37)
Launch: ‘The Owl’s Night Begins’ launched from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula at 10:09 UTC, 15 December 2020 and successfully deployed Synspective’s StriX-α to a 500 km circular orbit. The mission brings the total number of payloads deployed by Rocket Lab to 96.
The StriX-α satellite will demonstrate synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology developed by Synspective to be able to image millimeter-level changes to the Earth’s surface from space, independent of weather conditions on Earth and at any time of the day or night. StriX-α is the first of more than thirty satellites planned by Synspective to form a constellation in low Earth orbit to collate data on a daily basis that can be used for urban development planning, construction and infrastructure monitoring, and disaster response across Asia.
Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck, says: “Congratulations to the team at Synspective for the successful deployment of their first satellite. We’re proud to be able to continue to provide dedicated launch opportunities for small satellite customers like Synspective. Electron provides truly tailored access to space, enabling our customers to choose exactly when they launch and under their specific mission parameters.”
Synspective founder and CEO, Dr Motoyuki Arai, says: "Thanks to the efforts and hard work of both the Rocket Lab and Synspective teams we were able to achieve a successful launch as scheduled, despite the difficult environment of COVID-19. With the launch of StriX-α, Synspective will be able to demonstrate its satellite capabilities and data processing technology. This is the first step towards our constellation of 30 satellites and along with the development of our solutions, a full-scale business expansion will begin. Starting with this success, we will move tangibly closer towards the attainment of an advanced world, expanding people's understanding and learning capabilities with new data and technologies."
Figure 23: Timeline of launch events for Rocket Lab's 17th mission (image credit: Rocket Lab)
The StriX mission is described in a separate file on the eoPortal.
Return to Sender
• November 18, 2020: 'Return to Sender' will deploy nearly 30 satellites to a 500 km circular low Earth orbit for several small satellite operators. The mission will be Rocket Lab’s 16th launch overall and sixth mission of 2020.For the first time, Rocket Lab will also attempt to bring Electron’s first stage back from space under a parachute for a water landing. This major milestone is the next step in Rocket Lab’s plan to make Electron a reusable launch vehicle. Rocket Lab aims to retrieve the stage from this mission for inspection and analysis to inform future recovery missions. 38)
Launch: Rocket Lab successfully launched its 16th Electron mission, 'Return to Sender', at 02:20 UTC, 19 November 2020 (corresponding to 13:20 NZDT on 20 November, from Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand) and deployed 29 small satellites to orbit, the largest number of satellites deployed by Electron to date on a single mission. 39)
This mission also included Rocket Lab's first attempt to bring Electron’s first stage back to Earth under a parachute system for a controlled water landing before collection by a recovery vessel - a major milestone in Rocket Lab’s pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to support an increased launch cadence for small satellites.
• Approximately two and a half minutes after lift-off, at an altitude of around 80 km, Electron’s first and second stages separated per standard mission procedure. Once the engines shut down on Electron’s first stage, a reaction control system re-oriented the stage 180-degrees to place it on an ideal angle for reentry, enabling it to survive the incredible heat and pressure during its descent back to Earth (Ref. 38).
- After decelerating to <Mach 2, a drogue parachute will be deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the stage as it descends.
- During the last couple of kilometers, a large main parachute will then be deployed to further slow the stage and enable a soft water landing.
- Rocket Lab’s vessel will rendezvous with the stage after splashdown and retrieve it for transport back to Rocket Lab’s production complex for inspection.
While this mission will see Electron undertake a soft water landing, Rocket Lab plans to recover stages from future missions by capturing the boosters mid-air with a helicopter.
Orbit: Sun-synchronous orbit, altitude of ~500 km, inclination = 97.3º.
Figure 24: Timeline of launch events (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Figure 25: The Electron first stage is seen in the Pacific Ocean in this image shared by Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck on Twitter (image credit: Rocket Lab via Peter Beck)
Table 6: Rocket Lab declares success in Electron rocket recovery 40)
• DragRacer of TriSept Corporation: The DragRacer mission will test the effectiveness of new tether technologies designed to accelerate spacecraft reentry and reduce orbital debris at the conclusion of space missions. TriSept has completed the integration of a pair of qualified Millennium Space Systems 6U CubeSats, one featuring the tether drag device and one without. The controlled spacecraft should deorbit in approximately 45 days, while the second spacecraft is expected to remain in orbit for seven to nine years, according to Tethers Unlimited, developer of the 70-meter-long (230 feet) Terminator Tape aboard the control satellite.
Figure 26: Integration of the two Drag Racer CubeSats at Rocket Lab (image credit: Rocket Lab)
• BRO-2 (Breizh Recon Orbiter-2) and BRO-3 satellites of Unseenlabs, Rennes, France: BRO-2 and BRO-3 are the second and third satellites in French company Unseenlabs’ planned constellation of about 20 satellites, dedicated to maritime surveillance. The first BRO satellite was launched to orbit by Rocket Lab in August 2019. Unseenlabs’ constellation enables improved monitoring of activities at sea, such as illegal fishing and anti-environmental behavior. Thanks to a unique proprietary technology, the BRO satellites are the first to be able to independently and precisely locate and fingerprint Radio Frequency (RF) emitters all around the globe, day or night, in any weather condition, and without requiring any special embarked tracking device. With three satellites in orbit, Unseenlabs’ clients can now benefit from the shortest revisit time available on the satellite RF geolocation market.
Figure 27: Artist's illustration of the deployed BRO satellites (image credit: Rocket Lab) 41)
• Swarm picosatellites of Swarm Technologies, Palo Alto, CA, USA: Swarm will launch the latest 24 (each 0.25U) SpaceBEE satellites to continue building out its planned constellation of 150 satellites to provide affordable satellite communications services to IoT devices in remote regions around the world. Swarm’s uniquely small satellites enable the company to provide network services and user hardware at the industry’s lowest cost and deliver maximum value to customers across a range of industries including maritime shipping, agriculture, energy, and ground transportation. The SpaceBEES will be integrated into two of Rocket Lab’s 12U Maxwell CubeSat dispensers for orbital deployment.
Figure 28: Integration of the SpaceBEE picosatellite into 12U Maxwell CubeSat dispencer (image credit: Rocket Lab)
- In the summer of 2020, Swarm Technologies won FCC approval to offer global internet-of-things service with a constellation of 150 Spacebee satellites, which are one-quarter the size of a single CubeSat. 42)
• APSS-1 (Auckland Programme for Space Systems) of the University of Aukland: The student-built Waka Āmiorangi Aotearoa APSS-1 satellite is designed to monitor electrical activity in Earth’s upper atmosphere to test whether ionospheric disturbances can predict earthquakes. The data from this mission will deliver deeper knowledge of these hard-to-access altitudes and drive understanding of how phenomena such as solar wind and geophysical events affect this atmospheric region.
Figure 29: Francis Moynihan Lavey and the APSS-1 CubeSat at Rocket Lab (image credit: The University of Auckland) 43)
• Gnome Chompski of Valve's Gabe Newell, New Zealand: Manufactured with support from multi-award-winning design studio Weta Workshop, the unique space component is additively manufactured from titanium and printed in the shape of Half-Life gaming icon Gnome Chompski. The mission serves as a homage to the innovation and creativity of gamers worldwide, and also aims to test and qualify a novel 3D printing technique that could be employed for future spacecraft components. The 150 mm gnome will remain attached to Electron’s Kick Stage and will de-orbit with it when the stage burns up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.
Figure 30: A 5-inch titanium garden gnome, dubbed Gnome Chompski, was strapped to the Electron rocket's Kick Stage, a circular platform that drops satellites into orbit and then falls back toward the Earth, for the duration of the mission. 44) 45)
Mission 'In Focus'
• October 28, 2020: 'In Focus' is a rideshare mission to low Earth orbit for Planet and Spaceflight Inc.’s customer Canon Electronics. The mission deployed a total of 10 satellites to precise and individual orbits from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand. 46)
Planet had nine of their latest generation SuperDove satellites (3U CubeSats) deployed to a 500 km morning-crossing Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO). Each of the nine SuperDoves were integrated with and deployed from Rocket Lab’s Maxwell dispensers, the industry’s lightest CubeSat dispenser in its class. Planet’s Flock 4e’ of SuperDoves join the company’s constellation of Earth-observation satellites already on orbit providing medium-resolution global coverage and near-daily revisit.
The 10th and final payload, Canon Electronics Inc.’s CE-SAT-IIB, was arranged by satellite rideshare and mission management provider Spaceflight Inc. CE-SAT-IIB is a technical demonstration microsatellite developed by Canon Electronics Inc. It has a middle-size telescope equipped with an ultra-high sensitivity camera to take night images of the Earth and small size telescopes which are suitable for CubeSat use.
Figure 31: Left: Planet's SuperDoves ready for integration with the Rocket Lab Maxwell dispensers. Right: Planet's SuperDoves integrated with Rocket Lab's kickstage (image credit: Rocket Lab) 47)
Figure 32: Left: the CE-SAT-HB microsatellite (35.5 kg). Center: Dubai, image taken by an early generation Canon Electronics’s satellite, CE-SAT-1. Right: The Moon, image taken by an early generation Canon Electronics’s satellite, CE-SAT-1)
• Rocket Lab has successfully launched its 15th Electron mission and deployed Earth-imaging satellites for Planet and Spaceflight Inc. customer Canon Electronics. The mission was Rocket Lab’s fifth for this year, making Electron the second-most frequently flown U.S. launch vehicle in 2020. The ‘In Focus’ mission launched from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula on an Electron vehicle at 21:21 UTC, 28 October 2020. 48)
Figure 33: An Electron rocket lifts off from Rocket Lab’s launch base in New Zealand with 10 small satellites for Planet and Canon (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Orbit: Sun-synchronous orbit, altitude = 500 km, inclination = 97.5º.
Figure 34: Illustration of the varies stages during ascend (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, Peter Beck, says the mission demonstrates the industry-leading flexibility Electron provides to small satellite operators by deploying multiple spacecraft to their various target destinations even when flying as part of a rideshare.
“With Electron, we designed a launch system that makes access to space easy and puts our customers in the driver’s seat of their missions, and we’re proud to be delivering on that even through times of global disruption.”
• November 2, 2020: Shortly after deploying then ten customer satellites to orbit of the 'In Focus' mission (launch on 28 October 2020), the Kick Stage’s Curie engine reignited to maneuver the stage to a new inclination. While Rocket Lab has previously demonstrated orbit-raising maneuvers, this mission was the first time the Kick Stage performed an inclination change, a capability increasingly sought by small satellites that require custom and unique orbits even when flying as part of a rideshare. The now flight-proven capability enables more flexibility for small satellite operators and opens up a wider range of inclinations achievable from Rocket Lab’s two launch sites, Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand and Launch Complex 2 in Virginia, USA. 49)
- The mission was the latest demonstration of the Kick Stage’s in-space transportation capabilities, which span deploying satellites to precise orbits as well as orbit raising or lowering, inclination changes, and de-orbit capability. Each of these capabilities have now been demonstrated in-flight across 15 Electron missions. The Kick Stage can also fly on other launch vehicles to deliver standalone in-space transportation as a tug.
- “Small satellites have long needed a way to bridge the gap between being dropped off in space by the launch vehicle and that last home stretch to reach the target orbit. The Kick Stage delivers that flexibility, providing in-space transportation to get satellites exactly where they need to go, every time, whether flying on Electron or another vehicle,” says Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck.
Rocket Lab Launches First In-house Designed & Built Photon Satellite
• September 3, 2020: Space systems company Rocket Lab has launched its first in-house designed and built operational satellite, cementing the company’s evolution from a launch provider to an end-to-end space solutions company that offers turnkey satellites and spacecraft components, launch, and on-orbit operations. 50)
The satellite, named ‘First Light’, is the first spacecraft from Rocket Lab’s family of configurable Photon satellites to be deployed to orbit. Launched as a technology demonstration, ‘First Light’ builds upon the existing capabilities of the Electron launch vehicle’s Kick Stage with additional subsystems to enable long duration satellite operations. This pathfinding mission is an initial demonstration of the new power management, thermal control and attitude control subsystem capabilities. By testing these systems for an extended period on orbit, Rocket Lab is building up flight heritage for future Photon satellite missions planned to low Earth orbit, the Moon, and Venus.
‘First Light’ was deployed to orbit on Rocket Lab’s 14th Electron mission, ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical’, which lifted-off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand on August 31, 2020. Approximately 60 minutes after lift-off, Electron deployed a 100 kg microsatellite for Capella Space, an action that would typically signal the successful completion of a standard Rocket Lab mission. — However, shortly after deploying the customer payload, Rocket Lab conducted an entirely new operation for the first time: Rocket Lab engineers sent a command to transition the Kick Stage into Photon satellite mode. This action marked the first on-orbit demonstration of Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite as a two-in-one spacecraft, first using it to complete its conventional launch vehicle function to deploy customer satellites, then transitioning into a satellite to continue a standalone mission.
“We started with launch and solved it, releasing small satellites from the time and orbit constraints experienced when flying on larger launch vehicles. Now we’ve simplified satellites too,” said Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “Launching the first Photon mission marks a major turning point for space users – it’s now easier to launch and operate a space mission than it has ever been. When our customers choose a launch-plus-spacecraft mission with Electron and Photon, they immediately eliminate the complexity, risk, and delays associated with having to build their own satellite hardware and procure a separate launch.”
Designed for launch on Electron, as well as other launch vehicles, ‘First Light’ paves the way for future, high-energy variations of Photon designed for lunar and interplanetary missions, including the CAPSTONE mission to the Moon for NASA in early 2021. Lifting off from Launch Complex 2 in Virginia, Rocket Lab will use the Electron rocket and Photon Lunar spacecraft to launch NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat to Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO), the same orbit planned for Artemis.
With the ‘First Light’ mission, Rocket Lab has completed its first full demonstration of its end-to-end mission services, encompassing mission design, component build and spacecraft assembly, integration and test (AIT), launch, ground segment, and on-orbit mission operation. The process of developing the first on-orbit Photon also enabled Rocket Lab to refine and streamline production and testing processes for higher volume Photon production to meet growing customer demand.
Rocket Lab recently opened a new headquarters and manufacturing complex in Long Beach, California, to accommodate streamlined, rapid production of Photons. The facility is also home to payload integration facilities for Photon missions, as well as a state-of-the-art mission operations center. The production complex is already home to extensive production lines delivering more than 130 Rutherford engines for the Electron launch vehicle every year, along with guidance and avionics hardware. In addition to expanding its manufacturing complex, Rocket Lab recently acquired Sinclair Interplanetary, a leading provider of high-quality, flight-proven satellite hardware, to strengthen the Rocket Lab Space Systems division. Sinclair Interplanetary products have become key features of the Photon satellite platforms, and Rocket Lab is also dedicating resources to grow Sinclair’s already strong merchant spacecraft components business. The acquisition enables Sinclair Interplanetary to tap into Rocket Lab’s resources, scale, manufacturing capability, and innovative technologies to make world-leading satellite hardware accessible to more customers.
Figure 35: Illustration of the Photon satellite platform (image credit: Rocket Lab) 51)
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical
• August 31, 2020 (launch at 03:05 UTC). A dedicated mission for Capella Space Corporation of Palo Alto, California, an information services company providing Earth observation data on demand. 52)
Capella’s payload, ‘Sequoia’ (Capella-2), is a single 100 kg class microsatellite which will be the first publicly available satellite in the company’s commercial Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) constellation. By positioning the satellite to a 45º inclination at an altitude of 525 km, Capella Space will maximize coverage over important areas such as the Middle East, Korea, Japan, Europe, South East Asia, Africa, and the U.S.
The mission name is a nod to Capella’s SAR technology that provides high quality images of the Earth day or night, and in any weather conditions. Capella’s space-based radar can detect sub-0.5 meter changes on the surface of the Earth, providing insights and data that can be used for security, agricultural and infrastructure monitoring, as well as disaster response and recovery.
The successful mission signaled a return to launch operations for Rocket Lab, a leader in the small satellite launch market, after suffering a failure on the last Electron flight July 4. Investigators traced the cause of the failure to a single faulty electrical connector on the second stage, which detached in flight and led to a premature engine shutdown. 53) 54)
The Electron second stage released a Curie kick stage to perform the mission’s final burn to place the Sequoia satellite into a targeted orbit at an altitude of 525 kilometers. Rocket Lab ended its live launch webcast after the end of the second stage burn, but the company later confirmed on Twitter that the Curie stage deployed Sequoia into its planned orbit.
Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck, said, “Congratulations to the Capella Space team in this first step to building out a new constellation to provide important Earth observation data on-demand. Electron is the ideal launch vehicle for missions like this one, where the success of a foundational deployment relies heavily on a high level of control over orbit and schedule. I’m also immensely proud of the team, their hard work, and dedication in returning Electron to the pad safely and quickly as we get back to frequent launches with an even more reliable launch vehicle for our small satellite customers.”
Capella, which purchased an Electron launch earlier in the year for a future satellite, elected to use that contract for the launch of Sequoia because of the uncertainty of when SAOCOM-1B would launch. By chance, SAOCOM-1B launched on a Falcon-9 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, less than four hours before the Electron launch (Ref. 54).
Figure 36: Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher lifts off from New Zealand's Launch Complex at Mahia on 31 August 2020 (03:05 GMT), image credit: Rocket Lab)
Pics Or It Didn't Happen
• July 4, 2020 (launch at 21:19 UTC): Following a successful lift-off, first stage burn, and stage separation, Rocket Lab experienced an anomaly during its 13th Electron mission ‘Pics Or It Didn’t Happen.’ 55)
The issue occurred approximately four minutes into the flight on July 4, 2020 and resulted in the safe loss of the vehicle. As a result, the payloads onboard Electron were not deployed to orbit. Electron remained within the predicted launch corridors and caused no harm to personnel or the launch site. Rocket Lab is working closely with the FAA to investigate the anomaly and identify its root cause to correct the issue to move forward.
“We are deeply sorry to our customers Spaceflight Inc., Canon Electronics Inc., Planet, and In-Space Missions for the loss of their payloads. We know many people poured their hearts and souls into those spacecraft. Today's anomaly is a reminder that space launch can be unforgiving, but we will identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and CEO. “The launch team operated with professionalism and expertise to implement systems and procedures that ensured the anomaly was managed safely. I’m proud of the way they have responded to a tough day. We’re working together as a team to comb through the data, learn from today, and prepare for our next mission.”
Today's anomaly occurred after 11 consecutive successful orbital launches of the Electron launch vehicle. Rocket Lab currently has more than eight Electron vehicles in production, ready for a rapid return to flight as soon as investigations are complete and any required corrective actions are in place.
Target Orbit: Near -circular sun-synchronous orbit, altitude of 500 km, inclination of 97.5º. 56)
Payload's of the mission
The seven satellites lost in Saturday’s launch failure were owned by Canon, Planet and a British startup company named In-Space Missions. 57)
1) Canon’s CE-SAT-1B Earth-imaging spacecraft was the largest of the payloads on this mission. The 67 kg microsatellite was shaped like a cube. Its camera system was designed to be able to resolve objects on the ground as small as 90 cm, according to Canon. CE-SAT-1B was to be Canon’s second satellite in orbit, and the Japanese electronics company — eyeing a fleet of Earth-viewing satellites — intended to test the spacecraft’s design for future mass production.
Spaceflight, a Seattle-based rideshare launch broker acquired by the Japanese conglomerate Mitsui last month, arranged the launch of the CE-SAT-1B spacecraft with Rocket Lab.
“We are of course disappointed, while at the same time are always aware that launch failures are part of the business of space,” Spaceflight said in a statement. “We will work closely with Rocket Lab and our customer Canon Electronics who had their CE-SAT-IB imaging satellite onboard this mission to figure out the next steps, but we are undeterred in our resolve to get our customers to space.
“We have faith in all our launch vehicles, including Electron, and look forward to many more successful launches with them,” Spaceflight said.
Figure 37: Photo of the CE-SAT-1B Earth-imaging satellite. Six smaller CubeSats (shown below the Ce-SAT-1B) were stowed inside Rocket Lab’s Maxwell deployers (image credit: Rocket Lab)
2) Five SuperDove Earth observation nanosatellites from Planet were also aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket Saturday. The SuperDoves were advanced versions of Planet’s medium-resolution Dove satellites, and are each about the size of a shoebox (3U CubeSats).
Based in San Francisco, Planet operates a fleet of more than 120 Earth observation satellites providing daily imaging coverage over all of the world’s landmass, providing data on changing features to governments and businesses. The five SuperDoves launched with Rocket Lab Saturday were part of Planet’s “Flock 4e” batch of nanosatellites.
“While it’s never the outcome that we hope for, the risk of launch failure is one Planet is always prepared for,” Planet said in a statement on its website. “We already have 26 SuperDoves, Flock 4v, slated for launch on a Vega rocket later this summer, and several other launches over the next 12 months are on the manifest.”
3) Faraday-1, a 6U CubeSat from the British company In-Space Missions — it is the first in a series of smallsats planned by In-Space Missions. Faraday-1 was packed with experimental payloads, including a software-defined radio from Airbus Defense and Space that can be remotely reprogrammed in orbit. Other payloads on Faraday-1 were to pursue applications such as IoT (Internet of Things), characterization of a ground-based laser, 360-degree optical video imaging, radio spectrum monitoring, real-time video from space, and satellite-based communications, according to In-Space Missions.
“The In-Space team is absolutely gutted by this news,” the company tweeted. “Two years of hard work from an incredibly committed group of brilliant engineers up in smoke. It really was a very cool little spacecraft.”
Don't Stop Me Now
• June 13, 2020: On 13 June 2020 (05:12 UTC), Rocket Lab launched 5 small satellites into orbit on a long delayed flight from its launch site on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. Rocket Lab named the mission "Don't Stop Me Now," flown on the Electron vehicle. 58) 59)
- This launch is the first conducted by Rocket Lab since COVID-19 national restrictions were eased earlier this month, demonstrating the company’s rapid launch and responsive space capability for small satellite customers.
- The satellites deployed as part of this rideshare mission include NASA’s ANDESITE (Ad-Hoc Network Demonstration for Extended Satellite-Based Inquiry and Other Team Endeavors) satellite created by students and professors at Boston University to study Earth’s magnetic field as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI); three classified payloads designed, built and operated by the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office); and the M2 Pathfinder satellite, a collaboration between the UNSW Canberra Space and the Australian Government, to test communications architecture and other technologies.
- This latest mission marks the second time NASA and the NRO have launched payloads on Electron, following dedicated missions for each organization in 2018 and 2020 respectively. Rocket Lab founder and chief executive, Peter Beck, said the mission highlighted Electron’s continued ability to meet the needs of government missions, whether payloads required a dedicated mission or could fly as part of a rideshare.
- “It was a privilege to once again provide access to space for the NRO and NASA, and to welcome UNSW Canberra Space to orbit for the first time,” he said. “Missions like this one are testament to the flexibility we offer small satellite operators through our ability to deploy multiple payloads to precise and individual orbits on the same launch. This collaborative mission was also a great demonstration of Rocket Lab’s capability in meeting the unique national security needs of the NRO, while on the same mission making space easy and accessible for educational payloads from NASA and UNSW Canberra. I’m also incredibly proud of the way our team has quickly adapted to working safely and efficiently to ensure our customers remain connected to space through the challenges posed by COVID-19.”
- With COVID-19 restrictions now easing, Rocket Lab has also returned to full production of Electron launch vehicles and Photon satellites. Rocket Lab is now delivering a launch vehicle off the production line every 18 days to meet a busy launch manifest for the rest of the year. Final checks are being completed in the lead up to Rocket Lab’s first launch from its new U.S. launch site, Launch Complex 2 in Virginia — a dedicated mission in partnership with the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program and the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Small Launch and Targets Division. The mission is scheduled for Q3 2020.
• June 8, 2020: A launch delay, through no fault of their own caused by the COVID-19 virus, is finally back on schedule for Rocket Lab’s 12th Electron launch, the ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ mission from Launch Complex 1. Originally slated to launch in late March the mission will lift payloads for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra Space. The mission has been named ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ in recognition of Rocket Lab board member and avid Queen fan Scott Smith, who recently passed away. 60)
- 'Don't Stop Me Now' is a rideshare mission that will launch several small satellites, including the ANDESITE (Ad-Hoc Network Demonstration for Extended Satellite-Based Inquiry and Other Team Endeavors) satellite created by electrical and mechanical engineering students and professors at Boston University. The satellite will launch as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and will conduct groundbreaking scientific study into Earth’s magnetic field.
- Once in space, the ANDESITE satellite will initiate measurements of the magnetosphere with onboard sensors, later releasing eight pico satellites carrying small magnetometer sensors to track electric currents flowing in and out of the atmosphere, a phenomenon also known as space weather. These variations in the electrical activity racing through space can have a big impact on our lives here on Earth, causing interruptions to things like radio communications and electrical systems. The ANDESITE satellite follows on from Rocket Lab’s first ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) launch for NASA, the ELaNa-19 mission, which launched a host of educational satellites to orbit on Electron in December 2018.
• May 29, 2020: Rocket Lab has resumed launch operations for the firm's next Electron launch, following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions. 61)
Rocket Lab’s 12th Electron launch was postponed from its original date of March 27th following the implementation of the New Zealand Government’s Alert Level 4 Covid-19 national response, which required most businesses to close, restricted travel and instructed people to stay home.
With COVID-19 restrictions now eased, a new launch window for this mission has been scheduled to commence June 11, 2020, NZT, from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The mission will loft payloads for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra Space.
The Electron launch vehicle and the Launch Complex 1 ground systems have remained in a state of readiness throughout the Covid-19 lockdown in preparation for a quick return to launch operations. Enhanced health and safety processes will be implemented for this launch in line with government health advice to protect Rocket Lab personnel. These measures include physical distancing, split shifts, maintaining contact tracing registers, limiting interaction between team members, enhanced cleaning, and stringent hygiene standards.
Birds of a Feather
Rocket Lab's 11th Electron flight - Birds of a Feather - launched a dedicated mission for the United States NRO (National Reconnaissance Office). The mission successfully lifted off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 at 15:56 NZDT (02:56 UTC), 31 January 2020. The mission was Rocket Lab’s first launch for 2020 and was the first dedicated launch of an NRO payload from New Zealand. 62)
NRO selected Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle for the mission through a competitively awarded contract under the Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract vehicle. RASR allows the NRO to explore new launch opportunities that can provide a streamlined, commercial approach for getting small satellites into space.
While the mission’s primary objective was to deploy the NRO payload to its final orbit, which was achieved as planned, Rocket Lab also achieved a secondary objective by conducting another guided re-entry of Electron’s first stage in another step towards the company’s goal of reusable rocket boosters.
The re-entry test for ‘Birds of a Feather’ is the second time Rocket Lab has guided an Electron first stage booster down to sea-level, following on from the first successful re-entry test conducted on the ‘Running Out of Fingers’ mission in December 2019. Once again, initial analysis shows the stage made it back to sea-level intact following a guided descent, proving that Electron can withstand the immense heat and forces generated on re-entry.
To guide the stage to a planned splashdown, Electron’s first stage was equipped with on-board guidance and navigation hardware, including S-band telemetry and onboard flight computer systems. The stage was also equipped with a reaction control system to orient the booster 180-degrees for its descent and keep it dynamically stable for the re-entry.
As the first Electron launch of 2020, ‘Birds of a Feather’ kicked off a busy year of activity for Rocket Lab. The company plans to conduct monthly Electron launches this year, including the first mission from Launch Complex 2 in Wallops, Virginia. Major construction projects are also underway, including development of the company’s third launch pad, located at Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, and Rocket Lab’s new Headquarters and Production Complex, located in Long Beach, California. 2020 will also see the first launch of Rocket Lab’s in-house designed and built Photon satellites, a significant step towards offering beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) capabilities, including Lunar orbits for small satellites.
Rocket Lab confirmed the Electron's second stage placed the Curie kick stage and the NROL-151 payload into the planned transfer orbit. The Curie kick stage was expected to separate from the Electron second stage, then ignite around 50 minutes after liftoff to place the NROL-151 payload into the proper orbit for deployment. 63)
Rocket Lab flight: Running Out Of Fingers
Rocket Lab, the global leader in dedicated small satellite launch, has successfully launched its tenth Electron mission and deployed seven spacecraft to orbit during a launch that marks a major step towards reusable Electron rockets. - The mission, named ‘Running Out Of Fingers’ in recognition of Rocket Lab’s tenth launch, lifted off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula at 21:18 NZDT on 6 December 2019 (08:18 UTC). 64)
The seven satellites on board were for commercial rideshare customers Alba Orbital and ALE (the latter of which was procured by Spaceflight) bringing the total number of small satellites deployed by Rocket Lab to 47, continuing the company’s record of 100% mission success for customers. ALE’s payload was deployed to a 400 km circular orbit, before the Kick Stage’s Curie engine reignited and dropped the stage to a circular 385 km orbit for deployment of Alba Orbital’s payloads.
Rocket Lab also successfully completed a guided reentry of the Electron vehicle’s first stage as part of the company’s plans to make Electron a reusable rocket. The stage made it back to sea-level intact following a guided descent. As part of a block upgrade, Electron’s first stage for this mission included guidance and navigation hardware, including S-band telemetry and onboard flight computer systems, to gather data during the first stage’s atmospheric reentry. The stage was also equipped with a reaction control system to orient the booster during its reentry descent.
The RCS system successfully oriented the first stage 180-degrees for its descent, and it remained dynamically stable for the reentry, keeping the correct angle of attack. The stage was successfully slowed to less than 900 km per hour by the time it reached sea-level and disintegrated as planned on impact.
Rocket Lab will continue to work through the recovery data ahead of a full recovery attempt next year that will see parachutes deployed from Electron’s first stage to enable a soft water landing.
Figure 38: Rocket Lab successfully completes a guided re-entry of the Electron launch vehicle first stage all the way to splashdown and continues track record of 100% mission success for customers with 47 satellites delivered to orbit to date (image credit: Rocket Lab)
"Not only is this tenth mission a significant milestone launch for us, but our first guided stage reentry was a complete success. The stage made it through the harsh reentry environment intact, which is an outstanding result for a first test of our recovery systems. It’s a huge testament to the relentless drive and commitment of our team that we’ve reached ten flights in just our second year of commercial launches,” says Rocket Lab CEO and founder, Peter Beck.
“As we close out another year of launches, we set our sights on a busy 2020 that will see us launch Electron from U.S. soil out of Launch Complex 2 for the first time, while continuing to grow the launch cadence out of Launch Complex 1.”
Launch: Rocket Lab’s tenth launch lifted off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula on 6 December 2019 at 08:18 UTC.
Orbit: Near-circular orbit with an altitude of ~400 km for the ALE-2 payload. The six picosatellite were deployed to an altitude of 385 km (reignition of the kick stage).
Figure 39: Illustration of the varies stages during ascend (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Six of the seven satellites were “PocketQube” picosatellites, smaller versions of CubeSats, developed by the Scottish company Alba Orbital of Glasgow for five customers in the United States and Europe. Those satellites will perform a variety of technology demonstrations, from intersatellite communications links to Internet of Things connectivity.
• ATL-1, a Hungarian picosatellite of ATL Ltd., built to the 2P PocketQube form factor. The objective of the mission is to test a new thermal isolation material in space, conduct a thermal insulator material experiment and DVB-T band spectrum monitoring.
• FossaSat-1, a picosatellite (0.2 kg) of Fossa Systems of Spain. The objective is the testing of a new experimental RF chirp modulation called LoRa and to share educational data from space to the public.
• NOOR-1A and -1B (also known as Unicorn-2B and -2C ) mission, developed by Alba Orbital Ltd of Glasgow and sold to Stara Space of Miami Beach, Florida. The objective is to demonstrate a LEO-LEO intersatellite link, encrypted communication, ADCS, and integration with ground station software that allows 3rd party satellites to request data transfer, crucial technologies required to create a real-time global communications constellation. 65)
Figure 40: Deployment of 7 PocketQube Spacecraft, NOOR-1A & 1-B (Unicorn-2b/c), Discovery, ATL-1, FOSSASat-1, SMOG-P, (video credit: Alba Orbital)
• SMOG-P, a picosatellite (1P PocketQube form factor) of the BME University of Budapest, Hungary.
• TRSISat is a picosatellite (1P PocketQube form factor) of My Radar.
• ALE-2 (Advanced Technology Laser-2), a technology demonstration microsatellite with a mass of 75 kg. The satellite was built by ALE (Astro Live Experiences) of Tokyo, Japan. ALE-2, with a size of 60 x 60 x 80 cm, is packed with 400 balls of 1 cm in diameter that are designed to burn up high in Earth's atmosphere, generating "shooting stars" of various colors. After launch, ALE will conduct operational tests over several months to confirm the health of all components and systems of ALE-2, and afterwards demonstrate the world’s first man-made shooting star. ALE is aiming to materialize and commercialize a man-made shooting star within 2020 using this 2nd satellite. — ALE-1, with a mass of 68 kg, was launched on an Epsilon vehicle from Japan on 18 January 2019.
Figure 41: Artist's view of the deployed ALE-2 microsatellite (image credit: ALE) 66)
Rocket Lab flight: As The Crow Flies
This mission lifted-off from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. Encapsulated in Electron’s fairing was a single spacecraft for Astro Digital, a California-based satellite manufacturer and operator.
Astro Digital provides customers with complete spaceborne systems and mission support services for applications such as Earth observation, satellite communications, and technology demonstration.
This mission flew a Palisade technology demonstration satellite, a 16U CubeSat bus with on-board propulsion system, a next generation Astro Digital developed communications system, and software developed by ASI (Advanced Solutions Inc.) including an advanced version of ASI’s MAX Flight Software.
The mission was named ‘As The Crow Flies’ in a nod to Astro Digital’s Corvus Platform, which provides flexible and cost-effective solutions across a wide range of applications and mission profiles on bus variants ranging from 6U and 16U CubeSats to ESPA Class. Corvus is also a widely-distributed genus of birds which includes crows.
Launch: The Electron rocket of Rocket Lab was launched with the Palisade 16U CubeSat of Astro Digital on 17 October 2019 at 01:22 UTC (14:22 NZDT) from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. 67)
Orbit: Near-circular orbit with an altitude of 1000 km (twice as high as previous launches) at an inclination of 45º.
Figure 42: A Rocket Lab Electron vehicle lifts-off on 17 October 2019 carrying the 16U CubeSat of ASI (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Approximately 71 minutes after lift-off, Electron’s Kick Stage deployed the payload to a circular orbit of more than 1,000 km - more than twice the altitude of any Electron mission to date. The mission successfully demonstrated recent upgrades to the Kick Stage’s 3D-printed Curie engine, including the move to a bi-propellant design for improved performance. Curie also serves as the propulsion system on Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite bus, and the flight-proven engine upgrades support enduring missions in LEO, as well as higher orbits.
This mission takes the total number of satellites deployed by Rocket Lab to 40 and continues the company’s track record of 100% mission success for customers.
Rocket Lab flight: Look Ma, No Hands
Rocket Lab's eighth mission lifted-off on 19 August UTC from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, carrying a total of four satellites aboard an Electron launch vehicle. 68)
On board were satellites destined to begin a new constellation for UnseenLabs, as well as more rideshare payloads for Spaceflight, consisting of a spacecraft for BlackSky and the United States Air Force Space Command.
The mission launched a CubeSat that formed the cornerstone of a new maritime surveillance constellation for French company UnseenLabs. The constellation aims to deliver precise, reliable, and secure maritime data, enabling organizations to monitor their own vessels and observe those that present risks, such as pirates and illegal vessels.
Mission management and rideshare aggregator, Spaceflight, also manifested three satellites on its second rideshare mission with Rocket Lab. Among the rideshare payloads is BlackSky’s Global-4 Earth-imaging satellite. The satellite will join BlackSky Global-3, which was launched to low Earth orbit on an Electron vehicle in June 2019. BlackSky’s constellation delivers rapid-revisit satellite imagery to assist with monitoring economic activity such as crop development and herd migration, or surveying damage following natural disasters.
The final spacecraft manifested on this mission are two experimental satellites (6U CubeSats, named Pearl White) for the United States AFSPC (Air Force Space Command), designed to test new technologies including propulsion, power, communications, and drag capabilities for potential applications on future spacecraft. These Pearl White CubeSats were built by Tiger Innovations Inc. of Herndon, VA with a design life of 1 year. Tiger Innovations Inc. will operate the spacecraft for the life of the program under the direction and oversight of AFSPC.
Launch: A Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle successfully lifted off from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula at 00:12 NZST on 20 August 2019, corresponding to 12:12 UTC on 19 August 2019. 69) 70)
At approximately 54 minutes after lift-off, all payloads were successfully deployed by Electron’s Kick Stage. The launch vehicle also carried critical instrumentation (a recorder to collect data during the first stage’s reentry ) to inform development efforts for Rocket Lab’s recently announced plans to recover and re-use of Electron’s first stage.
Orbit: Near-circular orbit, altitude of 540 km with an inclination of 45º.
Figure 43: A Rocket Lab Electron rocket lifts off Aug. 19 carrying four smallsats (image credit: Rocket Lab webcast)
The launch of the 6U CubeSat of the French company UnseenLabs, called BRO 1 (Breizh Reconnaissance Orbiter-1), was arranged separately. The satellite, built by the Danish company GOMSpace, is the first in a constellation that will provide maritime surveillance services, that the company says, is not dependent on tracking AIS (Automatic Identification System) signals.
Rocket Lab flight: Make it Rain
The 'Make It Rain' mission launched multiple spacecraft as part of a rideshare flight procured by Spaceflight of Seattle, WA. The launch took place from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. 71)
The mission was named ‘Make it Rain’ in a nod to the high volume of rainfall in Seattle, where Spaceflight is headquartered, as well as in New Zealand , where Launch Complex 1 is located. Among the payloads on the mission for Spaceflight were BlackSky’s Global-3 satellite and Melbourne Space Program’s ACRUX-1 CubeSat. 72)
Figure 44: Left: Electron arrives at LC-1 in preparation for the Make it Rain mission. Right: Make it Rain Fairing (image credit: Rocket Lab, June 2019)
Launch: The Make it Rain mission was launched on 29 June 2019 (04:30 UTC (16:30 NZST) on an Electron vehicle of Rocket Lab from Space Complex-1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. 73)
Launch of seven payloads of The Make it Rain mission with a total mass of 80 kg:
• Global-3 microsatellite of BlackSky Global, Seattle, WA.
• Two Prometheus CubeSats of the US military SOCOM (Special Operations Command), developed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
• ACRUX-1 CubeSat, developed by the Melbourne Space Program, a non-profit educational organization affiliated with the University of Melbourne in Australia.
• Two SpaceBEE data relay CubeSats from Swarm Technologies Inc., USA.
• The identity and owner of the seventh payload has not been disclosed by Rocket Lab.
With the exception of Global-3, all of the payloads were processed and integrated at Spaceflight’s facility in Auburn, Washington.
Figure 45: Photo of the Global-3 microsatellite of BlackSky (56 kg), the largest of the seven spacecraft, integrated to the kick stage (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Orbit: The seven satellites were deployed into a near circular orbit of 450 km with an inclination of 45º.
At approximately 56 minutes after lift-off, the Make It Rain payloads were successfully delivered to their precise individual orbits by Electron’s Kick Stage.
After payload deployment, the kick stage performed a deorbit burn, leaving no space debris in orbit. Rocket Lab has made limiting space junk a priority as part of their goal of growing the number of satellites in orbit with an accelerating launch cadence.