An Electron launch vehicle belonging to California startup Rocket Lab lifted off on Dec 16 from the company’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 07:33 pm local time (01:33 am EST).
It was carrying with it a payload of as many as 13 small satellites for NASA’s ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) program.
The Sunday launch was not only the company’s first NASA mission but also the space agency’s first launch under its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program.
NASA is currently in contract with three space companies, including Rocket Lab, Firefly Aerospace and Virgin Orbit – a spinoff of British space company Virgin Galactic – to provide dedicated launch vehicles for the VCLS initiative.
“The NASA Venture Class Launch Service contract was designed from the ground up to be an innovative way for NASA to work and encourage new launch companies to come to the market and enable a future class of rockets for the growing small satellite market,” said ELaNa-19 mission manager Justin Treptow in a Dec 4 press release.
“Matching ELaNa-19 with the Electron rocket gives these advanced scientific and educational satellites first-class tickets to space while providing valuable insight for potential NASA missions in the future,” Treptow added.
While the mission itself was called ElaNA-19, the Electron that made it happen was named “This One’s for Pickering” in honor of the late New Zealand-born scientist, Sir William Pickering, who immigrated to California as a young man, headed the NASA team that developed the United States’ first satellite called Explorer 1, and also served as the director of the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California.
After MECO (Main Engine Cut-Off), the first-stage booster separated and dropped back towards Earth for an intended plunge into the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, the second-stage continued on with its payload, propelled by a single Rutherford engine that fired for about 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.
Nine minutes into the launch, the Curie kick-stage separated from the second-stage Electron booster and entered coast phase, flying for about forty minutes before firing its main engine, which uses a “green” monopropellant to produce 120 N, or 27 lbf, of thrust (1 lbf = 4.44822 Newton.
After a 90-second burn, which stabilized the kick-stage’ trajectory, the thirteen nanosatellites were deployed in an elliptical orbit at an inclination of 85 degrees, some 500 kilometers above Earth.
“All payloads deployed!! Perfect mission,” Beck tweeted, confirming the release of the nanosats.
The thirteen nanosats that are now orbiting Earth include those built by American academic institutions as well as NASA-developed ones, including the Compact Radiation Belt Explorer (CeREs) satellite from the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Advance Electrical Bus (ALBus) from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
While the CeREs will study how energized electrons escape from the Earth’s radiation belts, the ALBus will demonstrate an advanced power management and distribution system and solar array deployment technologies.
Also among them is a US Naval Academy-developed RSat that will test robotic arms designed for future spacecraft that will service orbiting satellites.
The Sunday launch was Rocket Lab’s third orbital mission of the year, having successfully put three small satellites into orbit on behalf of Spire Global and Planet in January, and six small satellites as recently as last month.
The November mission, nicknamed “It’s Business Time,” saw the successful launch of two Lemur-2 satellites, two Proxima satellites, a CICERO 10 satellite, and an Irvine01 Cube Sat.
It also launched 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.
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,” he said at the time.
“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,” Beck said.
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, according to Beck.
“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, adding that the company was “tracking a pretty big pipeline of customers, and we’ve been very fortunate that people have put their trust in us.”
With its growing backlog, the company is contemplating more launch sites, including one in Scotland and a second in the U.S.
On Nov 15, Rocket Lab announced it had managed to raise $140 million, closing a Series E funding round led by Future Fund – Australia’s independently managed sovereign wealth fund.
The Series E round was also joined by other existing investors, including Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, DCVC (Data Collective), Greenspring Associates, Promus Ventures and K1W1, as well as new investor, Accident Compensation Corporation of New Zealand.
“This funding also enables the continued aggressive scale-up of Electron production to support our targeted weekly flight rate,” Beck said at the time.
“It will also see us build additional launch pads and begin work on three major new R&D programs,” promising to unveil the specifics sometime “in the new year.”