Ground antenna problem scrubs Rocket Lab’s first commercial launch

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated at 7 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT) on June 24 and 12 a.m. EDT (0400 GMT) on June 25.

A view of the Electron rocket on its launch pad in New Zealand shortly after Rocket Lab scrubbed the launch attempt. Credit: Rocket Lab

Problems with a downrange tracking station kept Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher on the ground in New Zealand Friday, U.S. time, and the company ordered a two-day delay to resolve the issues and wait for improved weather.

Rocket Lab said Sunday that unfavorable weather will keep the launcher on the ground an extra two days, with the next launch attempt planned during a four-hour window opening at 8:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday (0030 GMT; 12:30 p.m. New Zealand time Wednesday).

After waiting vehicle components to warm up on a chilly winter morning in New Zealand, the 55-foot-tall (17-meter) Electron rocket was loaded with a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants Friday. But the launch team halted the countdown at T-minus 23 minutes, and officials eventually declared the launch attempt scrubbed after initially hoping to fix the downrange tracking station problems.

Rocket Lab employs a communications facility in the Chatham Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, to relay data from the Electron during during launch. A dish antenna at the site is supposed to track the Electron booster as it flies across the sky, a few minutes after blastoff from Rocket Lab’s launch site on Mahia Peninsula, located on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, tweeted that the ground station is also required for a “solid live stream” of the launch, referencing the antenna’s importance to capture on-board video and telemetry for distribution on the company’s webcast.

Five satellites are packaged inside the Electron rocket’s nose cone. A kick stage will place the payloads into polar orbit around 300 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth.

The CubeSats aboard the Electron rocket include two Lemur-2 nanosatellites — each about the size of a shoebox — for Spire Global, a San Francisco-based company which collects commercial weather data and tracks ship movements. There is also a small satellite for GeoOptics, another California-headquartered company, launching on top of the Electron rocket to begin its own commercial weather surveillance mission.

Originally set for April, Rocket Lab’s first commercial mission was delayed two months after engineers noticed “unusual behavior” in a DC motor controller driving turbopumps on the rocket’s first stage, according to Beck.

“We took our time to really drill down and make sure we fully understood the cause because from here on out, we’re looking at a very high clip of manufacturing and launch for the rest of the year,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “The last thing we want to do is interrupt our manufacturing and launch flow with any kind of unresolved issue.”

By the end of the year, Rocket Lab aims to achieve a launch cadence of one flight per month.

The U.S.-New Zealand company’s privately-developed Electron rocket has launched two times to date. It successfully reached orbit on the second launch in January, and Rocket Lab announced it would proceed into commercial operations with the third mission, which officials have nicknamed “It’s Business Time.”

Rocket Lab took advantage of the two-month delay to add two more payloads to the “It’s Business Time” mission.

One of the new satellite passengers is Irvine01, a educational CubeSat built by California high school students. Irvine01 is part of the Irvine CubeSat STEM Program, comprising members from six high schools in Irvine, California.

The other payload added to the next Electron launch is a drag sail technology demonstrator named NABEO. Developed by High Performance Space Structure Systems in Germany, the NABEO small satellite mission will test a deployable 27-square-foot (2.5-square-meter) membrane using aerodynamic drag to slow down and de-orbit, a capability that could reduce space junk in low Earth orbit.

According to Beck, automated analysis tools and faster turnarounds in licensing and regulatory approvals made the late accommodation of Irvine01 and NABEO nanosatellites possible.

“Rocket Lab is a third about the rocket, a third about regulatory, and a third about infrastructure,” Beck said. “While the rocket is always the exciting bit that everybody gravitates to, actually the other two pieces here are equally important if we really want to move the needle on the space industry.”

“Usually, you talk about launch minus so many months to manifest a payload,” he said. “We’ve been working very closely with the regulatory authorities to put in place mechanisms where we can do these kinds of things in a very quick way that satisfies all the regulatory constraints, but also developing tools for the launch vehicle for doing coupled loads analysis for adding new spacecraft

“So (we’ve been) automating some of those processes and building the tools so that we can really turn these payload quickly. That’s the whole point of what we’re trying to achieve — regular and reliable service to orbit. Unfortunately, it’s nowhwere near as exciting as the rocket, but actually it’s incredibly critical.”

Because of its U.S. headquarters, Rocket Lab operates under U.S. regulatory authority, with the Federal Aviation Administration responsible for licensing the companies launch operations, despite the launch site’s location in New Zealand. Other U.S. regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission, grant approvals for U.S.-owned satellites.

“We had a very short window,” Beck said. “We had an opportunity to fly these two important payloads. We reached out to the regulators and said, ‘Hey, look, we think these are important. Let’s work together to get them on.’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, let’s do that.’”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.