From The Editors Science

Rocket Lab Launches Six Small Satellites into Orbit Aboard Electron Rocket

An Electron launch vehicle, belonging to California-based startup Rocket Lab, lifted off Sunday from the company’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 4.50 pm local time, carrying a payload of six small satellites and an experimental drag sail.

Nicknamed “It’s Business Time,” the mission was executed to perfection as each of the smallsats, as well as the experimental payload, were successfully put in their intended orbits.

It was a third-time-lucky scenario, as the mission had been postponed twice in the last seven months due to issues with the motor controller of the two-stage rocket’s first-stage Rutherford engines.

If you’re wondering about the nickname, well, it was inspired by a song of the same name by a New Zealand-based comedy duo of musicians Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement and also because of the fully commercial nature of the mission.

The mission payload included:

  • Two Lemur-2 satellites, launched on behalf of Spire Global — a U.S. company specializing in design, build, launch, and management of a network of small satellites — for the purpose of monitoring weather and maritime activity.
  • Two Proxima satellites belonging to Fleet Space Technologies – an Adelaide-based Australian company focused on building low-cost satellite-based systems for Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
  • A CICERO 10 (Community Initiative for Continuing Earth Radio Occultation) satellite for GeoOptics – an environmental data company providing space-based earth remote sensing data and services from a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit. The satellites were built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems for GeoOptics.
  • An Irvine01 CubeSat built by a team of students from six public high schools in Irvine, California.
    “Irvine CubeSat STEM Program (ICSP) is a project-based learning collaboration between K-12 education institutions, industry partners, non-profit organizations, and parent volunteers whose primary focus is to teach, train, and inspire the next generation of STEM professionals, while also creating opportunities for underrepresented groups in STEM-related fields,” says the Irvine CubeSat website.
  • A NABEO  drag sail built by Germany’s HPS GmbH (High Performance Space Structure Systems GmBH) for the purpose of testing a technique that will help reduce space junk by deorbiting small satellites at the end of their operating lives with the help of atmospheric drag.

The Sunday launch was Rocket Lab’s second orbital mission of the year, having successfully put three small satellites into orbit on behalf of Spire Global and Planet, in January.

“The world is waking up to the new normal. With the Electron launch vehicle, rapid and reliable access to space is now a reality for small satellites,” Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck said in a statement.

“We’re thrilled to be leading the small satellite launch industry by reaching orbit a second time and deploying more payloads,” he said, adding that his team executed a “flawless flight with incredibly precise orbital insertion.”

Soon after lift-off, the two-stage Electron launch vehicle soared south of the oceanside launch site, with the powerful Rutherford engines providing as much as 50,000 pounds of thrust during the first-stage burn that lasted for two and a half minutes.

After separation, the first-stage booster dropped back towards Earth for an intended plunge into the Pacific Ocean, while the second-stage continued on with its payload, propelled by a single Rutherford engine, which fired for more than six minutes to give the rocket the required speed to beat the planet’s gravity and enter orbit.

Developed in-house by Rocket Lab, all of the Rutherford’s primary components are 3D-printed and it uses battery-powered pumps, all of which translates to reduced manufacturing time and, more importantly, reduced costs.

About nine minutes after lift-off, the Curie kick stage separated from the second-stage Electron booster, deploying in an elliptical orbit at an inclination of 85 degrees, with a low and high point of around 200 and 500 kilometers, respectively.

After soaring over Antarctica and then north over the Atlantic Ocean for a bit, the Curie kick stage fired its main engine, which uses a “green” monopropellant to produce 120 N, or 27 lbf, of thrust (1 lbf = 4.44822 Newtons).

After the two-minute burn, which stabilized the orbit some 499 kilometers above Earth, the seven pieces of space hardware were released into their target orbits.

First went the Irvine 01 satellite, followed by Spire Global’s Lemur-2 satellites, Fleet Space Technologies’ Proxima satellites, and GeoOptics’ CICERO 10 satellite.

All the while, the experimental drag sail remained attached to the Curie kick stage, unfurling only after the six satellites had separated.

Speaking to Spaceflight Now last month, Beck said that despite the launch delays this year, Rocket Lab had laid the groundwork for a faster launch manifest.

“With the motor controller, we haven’t rushed to get back to the pad,” Beck said.

“What we’ve, in fact, done is taken our time to really set the business up to succeed in a high volume kind of way,” he added.

With a new high-volume factory in Auckland and one in Huntington Beach, California, Rocket Lab is looking at a production capability of one new launch vehicle every week.

Between its New Zealand launch site and an under-construction launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia – expected to be operational by the third quarter of 2019 – Rocket Lab has up to 16 Electron launches planned for 2019, Beck told Spaceflight Now.

“Our goal by the end of next year is to be launching once every two weeks, and as we move into 2020, launching once a week,” Beck said.

“We’re tracking a pretty big pipeline of customers, and we’ve been very fortunate that people have put their trust in us,” he added.

With its growing backlog, the company is contemplating more launch sites, including one in Scotland and a second in the U.S. – if it could raise the required funds.

“It’s a capital-intensive business, especially when you’re building launch sites all around the world,” Beck told Spaceflight Now.

“So there’s probably some future fundraising which we can talk about,” he said.

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