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VCLS-1 (Venture Class Launch Services-1) Mission of Rocket Lab for NASA

Mission Overview    Payloads    Launch   References

Rocket Lab (of Huntington Beach, CA, USA, and Auckland, New Zealand) is preparing for its first operational flight of their Electron rocket from its launch site on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. The mission will capitalize on the highly successful test flight of Electron in January, which saw the unexpected and previously unannounced launch of the Humanity Star payload as well as the planned debut of Electron's Curie kick-stage (third stage). 1)

Electron – from testing to operational flights: Rocket Lab's successful flight of the "Still Testing" Electron rocket from New Zealand in January has paved the way for the company to begin operational flights of their revolutionary smallsat launcher. "Still Testing" was the second Electron to fly following the inaugural launch of the vehicle on 25 May 2017. That maiden launch ended in a range safety-issued destruct command to the rocket after a ground systems issue prevented communication with the rocket, named "It's a Test".

Because the cause of the first flight's termination was not in anyway due to a malfunction on the rocket, the actual changes and differences between the first and second flights of Electron were quite insignificant.

"The difference between flight one and flight two [was] almost nothing," said Peter Beck , Rocket Lab's founder and CEO (Chief Executive Officer). "There were software upgrades, and clearly we fixed issues with the ground systems for flight termination, but I there wasn't a huge delta between the vehicles."

And the same will generally hold true between flights two and three, the final test flight and the first operational flight, with Peter Beck noting that some modifications will be made but that Rocket Lab is "pretty much .... locked in full production" of Electron at this point.

To this end, the second test flight, Still Testing, provided the team with additional data for review and validation while also launching Electron's first payloads into Earth orbit. But before those payloads made it to their destinations, Rocket Lab's launch team had to overcome a series of technical, weather, and range related safety issues that ultimately delayed Still Testing's launch six times between December 2017 and January 2018.

When "Still Testing" launched on 21 January 2018 (UTC), the mission was a resounding success – with good weather, a perfectly functioning rocket that placed its payloads into Earth orbit, and the debut of Electron's optional Curie kick-stage (third stage). The need for the kick-stage stemmed from a decision made by Rocket Lab for the second stage engine to only perform a single burn instead of being restartable.

Operational flights to start soon: With its tests flights behind them, Rocket Lab is now preparing for the first operational flight of the Electron, which is expected to fly in the near future. "Our next flight is going to be a full commercial flight, and we're manifesting that as quickly as we can," said Peter Beck. "Obviously we didn't manifest that before because it equally well could have been a test flight."


Figure 1: Electron, inverted under its Transporter/Erector/Launcher, rolls to the pad for launch operations (image credit: Rocket Lab)

In October 2015, NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) has awarded multiple Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) contracts to provide small satellites (SmallSats) — also called CubeSats, microsats or nanosatellites — access to low-Earth orbit.

The three companies selected to provide these new commercial launch capabilities, and the value of their firm fixed-price contracts, are:

• Firefly Space Systems Inc. of Cedar Park, Texas, $5.5 million

• Rocket Lab USA Inc. of Los Angeles, $6.9 million

• Virgin Galactic LLC of Long Beach, California, $4.7 million

At present, launch opportunities for small satellites and science missions mostly are limited to rideshare-type arrangements, flying only when space is available on NASA and other launches. The services acquired through these new contract awards will constitute the smallest class of launch services used by NASA.

"LSP is attempting to foster commercial launch services dedicated to transporting smaller payloads into orbit as an alternative to the rideshare approach and to promote the continued development of the U.S. commercial space transportation industry," said Jim Norman, director of Launch Services at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "VCLS is intended to help open the door for future dedicated opportunities to launch CubeSats and other small satellites and science missions."

Small satellites, including CubeSats, are playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstration, scientific research and educational investigations at NASA. These miniature satellites provide a low-cost platform for NASA missions, including planetary space exploration; Earth observations; fundamental Earth and space science; and developing precursor science instruments like cutting-edge laser communications, satellite-to-satellite communications and autonomous movement capabilities.

LSP supports the agency's CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) by providing launch opportunities for more than 50 CubeSats that are awaiting launch during the next three years. The VCLS contracts will demonstrate a dedicated launch capability for smaller payloads that NASA anticipates it will require on a recurring basis for future science SmallSat and CubeSat missions.

Small satellites already are used to provide imagery collection for monitoring, analysis and disaster response. In the future, CubeSat capabilities could include ship and aircraft tracking, improved weather prediction, and the provision of broader Internet coverage.

The Earth Science Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington has partnered with LSP to fund the VCLS contracts. These VCLS launches of small satellites are able to tolerate a higher level of risk than larger missions and will demonstrate, and help mitigate risks associated with, the use of small launch vehicles providing dedicated access to space for future small spacecraft and missions.

"Emerging small launch vehicles have great potential to expand the use of small satellites as integral components of NASA's Earth science orbital portfolio," said Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division. "Today's CubeSat technology fosters hands-on engineering and flight research training; with the addition of reliable, affordable, and dedicated access to space on small launchers, constellations of SmallSats and CubeSats could revolutionize our science-based spaceborne Earth-observing systems and capabilities. We're eager to work with the VCLS providers as they develop new launch capabilities for the Earth science community."

Table 1: Some background on NASA's VCLS Program 2)



VCLS-1 mission:

In April 2018, Rocket Lab and NASA have carried out the integration of the CubeSat payloads scheduled to launch on the Electron rocket of Rocket Lab in the first half of 2018 for NASA's first ever VCLS (Venture Class Launch Services) mission. The flight will constitute the smallest class of dedicated launch services used by NASA and marks a significant milestone for Rocket Lab in providing such access to space for a NASA-sponsored mission of small satellites. 3) 4)

The launch is manifested with innovative research and development payloads from NASA and educational institutions that will conduct a wide variety of new, on-orbit science. Applications of the CubeSats booked on the mission include research such as measuring radiation in the Van Allen belts to understand their impact on spacecraft, through to monitoring space weather.

"We're incredibly excited to be launching NASA's first Venture Class mission," says Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. "The VCLS contract by NASA's Launch Services Program is very forward-thinking and a direct response to the small satellite industry's changing needs for rapid and repeatable access to orbit. The oversight NASA has provided to us as part of this contract has been tremendously valuable for us."

Big ideas used to require big rockets, but thanks to the miniaturization of technology, the small satellites of today can conduct innovative science that helps us better understand the Earth and our universe. Before Rocket Lab's Electron vehicle, launch opportunities for small satellites were mostly limited to rideshare-type arrangements on large launch vehicles, flying only when space was available on NASA and other launches. This can be impractical for some small satellite payloads, as they are at the mercy of the primary payload's schedule and desired orbit. Rocket Lab's Electron is the only private, small launch vehicle currently flying to orbit and offering the dedicated flights tailored to these small payloads.

"Venture Class launches are about freeing small satellite payloads from the barriers they currently face in trying to access space on larger launch platforms as secondary payloads. It's fantastic to see NASA enabling this change and embracing private small launch vehicles like Electron," adds Mr. Beck.

Ten CubeSats manifested on the mission are receiving their access to space through a NASA initiative called CSLI (CubeSat Launch Initiative) and are part of ELaNa-19 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites-19) . The program recognizes that CubeSats are playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstration, scientific research and educational investigations. These miniature satellites provide a low-cost platform for both research and commercial applications, including planetary space exploration; Earth observation; Earth and space science; and developing precursor science instruments like laser communications, satellite-to-satellite communications and autonomous movement capabilities.

The recent payload integration process, which took place at Rocket Lab USA's facility in Huntington Beach, California, involves conducting final spacecraft checks and preparations before the CubeSats are loaded into dispensers that protect the payloads during launch, then deploy them from the Electron vehicle once in low Earth orbit. The integrated payloads will be shipped to New Zealand for mating onto the Electron launch vehicle in coming weeks, before a launch from Rocket Lab's private orbital launch facility, Launch Complex 1.


Figure 2: In April 2018, Rocket Lab performed a successful fit check of the CubeSat dispensers for the NASA VCLS-1 ELaNa-19 mission at Rocket Lab's Huntington Beach payload integration cleanroom (image credit: Rocket Lab) 5)

A host of CubeSats, or small satellites, are undergoing the final stages of processing at Rocket Lab USA's facility in Huntington Beach, California, for NASA's first mission dedicated solely to spacecraft of their size. This will be the first launch under the agency's new Venture Class Launch Services. Scientists, including those from NASA and various universities, began arriving at the facility in early April with spacecraft small enough to be a carry-on to be prepared for launch. 6)


Figure 3: A team of the CeREs mission is testing their nanosatellite at Rocket Lab Facilities (image credit: NASA)

A team from NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, completed final checkouts of a CubeSat called the Compact Radiation Belt Explorer (CeREs), before placing the satellite into a dispenser to hold the spacecraft during launch inside the payload fairing. Among its missions, the satellite will examine the radiation belt and how electrons are energized and lost, particularly during events called microbursts — when sudden swarms of electrons stream into the atmosphere.

This facility is the final stop for designers and builders of the CubeSats, but the journey will continue for the spacecraft. Rocket Lab will soon ship the satellites to New Zealand for launch aboard the company's Electron orbital rocket on the Mahia Peninsula this summer.

The CubeSats will be flown on an Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) mission to space through NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative. CeREs is one of the 10 ELaNa CubeSats scheduled to be a part of this mission.


Payloads manifested on the VCLS-1 flight (Ref. 3):

CeREs (Compact Radiation Belt Explorer), a 3U CubeSat (a nanosatellite) of NASA/GSFC. The satellite is to measure radiation belt energization and loss electron spectra, and microbursts. A secondary objective is to measure solar electron spectra from > 5 keV. The instrument is MERiT (Miniaturized Electron and Proton Telescope).

STF-1 (Simulation to Flight 1), a 3U CubeSat of NASA/GSFC. STF-1 is a collaboration with West Virginia Space Grant Consortium (WVSGC) and West Virginia University (WVU) to demonstrate the utility of the NASA Operational Simulator (NOS) technologies across the CubeSat development cycle, from concept planning to mission operations.

CubeSail, two identical 1.5U CubeSats for upper atmospheric research of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The two satellites are launched as a unit, detumbled, and separated, with the film unwinding symmetrically from motorized reels.

CHOMPTT (CubeSat Handling Of Multisystem Precision Time Transfer), a 3U CubeSat of the University of Florida. The goal is to demonstrate nanosecond-level time transfer from Earth to a LEO CubeSat. Precision timing is a critical for satellite navigation systems, including GPS.

NMTSat, a 3U CubeSat of New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. The goal is to monitor space weather in low Earth orbit and correlate this data with results from structural and electrical health monitoring systems.

DaVinci, a 3U CubeSat of North Idaho STEM Charter Academy. The goal is teach students about radio waves, aeronautical engineering, space propulsion, and geography by sending a communication signal to schools around the world.

RSat-P, a 3U CubeSat of USNA (U.S. Naval Academy). The goal is to demonstrate capabilities for in-orbit repair systems.

ISX (Ionospheric Scintillation Explorer), a 3U CubeSat of California Polytechnic State University. ISX is a space weather investigation to better understand the physics of naturally occurring Equatorial Spread F ionospheric irregularities by deploying a passive ultra-high frequency radio scintillation receiver.

Shields-1, a 3U CubeSat of NASA/LaRC (Langley Research Center) with a radiation shielding research payload. A technology demonstration of environmentally durable space hardware to increase the technology readiness level of new commercial hardware through performance validation in the relevant space environment.

ALBus (Advanced eLectrical Bus), a 3U CubeSat of NASA/GRC (Glenn Research Center). It is a technology demonstration mission of an advanced, digitally controlled electrical power system capability and novel use of Shape Memory Alloy technology for reliable deployable solar array mechanisms. The goals of the mission are to demonstrate: efficient battery charging in the orbital environment, 100 Watt distribution to a target electrical load, flexible power system distribution interfaces, adaptation of power system control on orbit, and successful deployment of solar arrays and antennas utilizing resettable shape memory alloy mechanisms.

SHFT-1, a 3U CubeSat of NASA/JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). The goal is to collect radio frequency signals in the HF (5-30 MHz) band to study the galactic background emissions, the HF signals from Jupiter, and the signals from terrestrial transmitters after having passed through the Earth's ionosphere.


Launch: A launch of the VCLS-1 mission on an Electron vehicle of Rocket Lab is planned for the summer of 2018. The launch site is the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand.

The new commercial spaceport is located at the southern tip of Mahia Peninsula, on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island (39.26º S 177.86º E).


Figure 4: The Electron rocket on its sea-side launch pad on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand (image credit: Rocket Lab)


1) Chris Gebhardt, "Rocket Lab to capitalize on test flight success with first operational mission," NASA, 7 March 2018, URL:

2) Kathryn Hambleton, George H. Diller, "NASA Awards Venture Class Launch Services Contracts for CubeSat Satellites," NASA Release 15-209, 14 October 2015, URL:

3) "Rocket Lab integrates payloads for first ever NASA Venture Class Launch Services Mission," Rocket Lab, 25 April 2018, URL:

4) "Smallsat Payloads Integrated Into Rocket Lab's Electron Rocket for NASA's VCLS Mission," Satnews Daily, 26 April 2018, URL:

5) "Rocket Lab completes fit check for NASA VCLS ELaNa XIX mission," Rocket Lab, April 2018, URL:

6) Bob Granath, "CubeSats Readied for NASA's First Venture Class Launch," NASA, 13 April 2018, URL:


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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