Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket rises from its launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)
Rocket Lab executed its second orbital mission today, sending six small satellites and an experimental drag sail into orbit from an oceanside launch pad in New Zealand.
Liftoff of the Electron rocket came at 4:50 p.m. New Zealand time on Sunday (7:50 p.m. PT Saturday) at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula.
This satellite launch mission was nicknamed “It’s Business Time,” in reference to its fully commercial nature as well as in tribute to one of the songs by Flight of the Conchords, a New Zealand parody-pop duo. Rocket Lab’s business time had been postponed twice over the past eight months, due to concerns about a motor controller for the first-stage Rutherford engines. But this time around, the countdown went off without a hitch, and the three-stage rocket rose into the southern sky to enter a pole-to-pole orbit.
Second-stage separation proceeded as planned. The rocket’s Curie kickstage, a mini-third stage, fired up about an hour later to put the satellites in their intended orbits.
The payloads included two Lemur-2 satellites for Spire, designed to monitor maritime traffic and weather; two Proxima satellites for Fleet Space Technologies, an Australian venture that’s building a satellite constellation for Internet of Things applications; a Cicero satellite for GeoOptics, part of a constellation that provides data for weather and climate research; and Irvine01, an experimental satellite that was built by high-school students from Irvine, Calif., and will take low-resolution pictures of celestial objects.
There was also a NABEO drag sail attached to the kickstage, built by Germany’s High Performance Space Structure Systems to test a technique for deorbiting small satellites more efficiently at the end of their operating life. After satellite deployment, the sail and the kickstage were meant to plunge through the atmosphere and burn up.
Rocket Lab, which is headquartered in California but has a strong New Zealand presence, is pushing out on the frontier of space technology by using carbon-composite materials for its rocket casings, and by taking advantage of 3-D printing to manufacture its electric-pump-fed Rutherford rocket engines. The list price for launching 100 to 225 kilograms (220 to 500 pounds) of payload into low Earth orbit is $5 million.
The company’s first launch in May 2017 sent an Electron rocket into space, but not into orbit. The second launch in January was successful, putting two Spire Lemur-2 and two Planet Dove Earth-observing satellites into orbit. That launch also sent up Humanity Star, an ornamental satellite that twinkled in the night sky (and irritated some astronomers) for months.
Rocket Lab has higher ambitions for low-cost space missions: Its next launch, aimed at putting a clutch of student-built CubeSats into orbit for NASA, could come within weeks. Seattle-based Spaceflight has struck a deal for at least three more Electron launches to follow.
Last month, Rocket Lab said it would build a second launch pad on Wallops Island in Virginia and start conducting Electron launches there in about a year.
The company raised $75 million in financing last year, boosting its valuation to more than $1 billion. One of its investors is Lockheed Martin, which won the British government’s nod to build a launch complex on Scotland’s north coast. There’s a chance Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle could be used at that facility as well.