Rocket Lab delivers on dedicated launch for Astro Digital

In this view from the Electron rocket’s second stage, Rocket Lab’s Curie kick stage with the Palisade satellite is seen backdropped by the Earth around 10 minutes after liftoff. Credit: Rocket Lab

A technology demonstration microsatellite for Astro Digital rode a Rocket Lab Electron launcher into orbit Wednesday (U.S. time) from New Zealand, setting the stage for the debut of new systems on the next Electron flight as engineers move closer to retrieving and reusing the rocket’s first stage.

The 55-foot-tall (17-meter) Electron rocket fired nine Rutherford engines with nearly 50,000 pounds of thrust at 9:22 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0122 GMT Thursday) to climb off its launch pad on Mahia Peninsula, the home of Rocket Lab’s privately-run spaceport on on New Zealand’s North Island.

Liftoff occurred at 2:22 p.m. local time in New Zealand to begin Rocket Lab’s ninth Electron mission, and the fifth this year.

Heading south from the launch base, the Electron shed its nine-engine first stage around two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. Moments later, the second stage’s single Rutherford engine ignited to continue the journey into space.

Powered by electric pumps, the Rutherford engines guided the Electron rocket into an on-target parking orbit around nine minutes into the mission, before the launcher deployed Rocket Lab’s Curie kick stage to complete the job of placing Astro Digital’s Palisade microsatellite into its final orbit.

A camera mounted to the tumbling Electron second stage beamed down dazzling live views of the Curie kick stage and the Palisade spacecraft.

Rocket Lab’s live webcast of the mission ended after the launcher reached its preliminary orbit. The company later confirmed the Curie kick stage completed its orbit adjustment maneuver, then released the Palisade satellite around 71 minutes after liftoff.

“Perfect final orbit and deployment,” tweeted Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO. “Flawless mission!”

The launch vehicle injected the Palisade spacecraft into a nearly circular polar orbit with an average altitude of around 745 miles, or 1,200 kilometers, at an inclination of 87.8 degrees, according to U.S. military tracking data.

The Curie kick stage flown on Wednesday’s mission included a performance enhancement. The kick stage’s engine previously used a single “green” non-toxic fuel — a monopropellant system, in propulsion parlance — while the upgraded engine is fed by a green bi-propellant mixture with a fuel and an oxidizer.

After releasing Astro Digital’s Palisade satellite, the Curie kick stage reignited to drop out of orbit, according to Rocket Lab.

“Just completed perfect de-orbit burn of the kick stage making sure we don’t leave junk in space for generations to come,” Beck tweeted.

The Electron rocket that launched Wednesday, known as “Flight 9,” was originally assigned to ferry a different payload into orbit, Beck said in a recent interview. Rocket Lab did not identify the satellite that was replaced by Astro Digital’s Palisade spacecraft.

“Congratulations to the Astro Digital team for readying the spacecraft and taking advantage of an earlier launch opportunity,” Beck said in a post-launch press release. “Our teams worked closely to deliver a flawless mission in a demonstration of the truly responsive space launch that small satellites need.”

Rocket Lab was the first in a new wave of startup launch companies to enter commercial operations with a small satellite launch vehicle. The Electron rocket, with a base price of $5.7 million, is sized to carry up to 330 pounds (150 kilograms) into a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit, allowing small satellite operators to buy dedicated rides to space rather than purchasing excess capacity on a larger launcher.

“No longer do small satellite operators have to accept the limitations of flying as a secondary payload, nor do they have to wait endlessly on the manifest of unproven launch vehicles,” Beck said. “Frequent, responsive, and reliable launch is the new norm for small satellites thanks to Electron.”

Rocket Lab aims to debut an upgraded Electron first stage on the company’s next mission, set for late November.

The first stage on the next Electron rocket, designated Flight 10, will feature several changes to help Rocket Lab prepare for an eventual attempt to recover the booster with a helicopter on a future flight. Rocket Lab announced in August plans to retrieve and reuse Electron first stages, primarily to achieve a planned cadence of one launch per week.

Rocket Lab determined production bottlenecks were a major factor inhibiting such a rapid launch rate. Reusing rockets could ease the burden on Rocket Lab’s factories in New Zealand and California, the company says.

The company installed a data recorder on an Electron rocket launched in August to collect information on the environments the first stage sees when it comes back to Earth, before eventually breaking apart in the atmosphere.

Beck told Spaceflight Now in a recent interview that the data obtained during the August launch showed that designing the Electron first stage to survive re-entry will be difficult.

“We knew it’s hard, but we certainly learned that it is hard,” Beck said. “We did get some good initial data from the flight (in August), but really Flight 10 is where it’s all going to happen. That’s where we’re pushing really deep with the stage. That stage has a full telemetry system, there’s RCS (reaction control system thrusters) to guide it into the entry corridor. We expect to go quite deep (into the atmosphere) with that flight.”

The next Electron launch will not carry a decelerator or a parachute. Those systems will be installed on later rockets to enable a recovery of the booster first from the ocean, then via helicopter, Beck said.

“It’s purely to just punch it into the atmosphere, fully guided, as deep as we can and gather data,” he said. “Flight 10 is about pushing it deep into the atmosphere and really understanding the hypersonic flow and the heating regime.”

SpaceX uses cold gas thrusters to re-orient its Falcon 9 first stages, then reignites a subset of the Falcon 9’s Merlin engines to slow down for propulsive landings, using thrust and grid fins to steer it back to a drone ship at sea or toward an onshore recovery site.

Rocket Lab is taking a different approach.

Because the Electron rocket is much smaller than the Falcon 9, there’s not enough leftover propellant to attempt a propulsive landing.

“We don’t intend to use grid fins,” Beck said. “We have other types of measures. The most important thing on this (next) one is the active guidance with the RCS and making sure we maintain a really tight corridor with the base heat shield first, and just push it as deep as we can go.”

The Palisade spacecraft launched Wednesday — about the size of a small suitcase — is designed for a technology demonstration mission, according to Astro Digital, a company based in Silicon Valley. It carries an on-board propulsion system, an Astro Digital-developed communications system, and software developed by Advanced Solutions Inc., a Colorado company.

“Our team built this satellite in five months, including the complex RF (communications) payload, something we are very proud of,” said Chris Biddy, co-founder and CEO of Astro Digital.

The company did not provide details on the type of communications technology it will test on the Palisade satellite, or the services the payload could provide to customers.

Astro Digital has launched four small “Landmapper” CubeSats for a planned fleet of Earth observation satellites. The company has “evolved” its strategy to support a broader range of satellite missions, Biddy told Spaceflight Now.

“We were able to prove our core satellite platform technology with our first Landmapper satellites and have now expanded and evolved into supporting a diverse range of missions leveraging our experience,” Biddy said. “We started as an Earth observation company. Now we are an end-to-end mission provider supporting broad LEO-based missions.”

Rocket Lab named Wednesday’s mission “As The Crow Flies” as a nod to Astro Digital’s Corvus satellite platform, upon which the Palisade mission is built. Corvus is a genus of birds that includes crows.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.