Rocket Lab to debut Virginia launch pad with U.S. Air Force mission next year

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated at 12 p.m. EST (1700 GMT) after press conference.

File photo of an Electron rocket lifting off from Rocket Lab’s launch site in New Zealand, powered by nine liquid-fueled Rutherford engines. Credit: Rocket Lab / Andrew Burns & Simon Moffatt

Rocket Lab plans to launch a research and development microsatellite mission for the U.S. Air Force in the first half of 2020 on the the first flight from the company’s new launch facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, officials announced Thursday.

Company officials announced the payload and launch schedule Thursday during a media briefing at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to provide an update on Rocket Lab’s first U.S. launch pad.

Rocket Lab, a U.S.-New Zealand company, has launched all 10 of its Electron rocket missions from the privately-owned Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula, located on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The new facility in Virginia — designated Launch Complex 2 — will allow Rocket Lab to hasten its flight pace, providing a location to launch U.S. military and other government payloads, and adding an alternative launch site for company’s commercial customers.

“Today, just 10 months after we started construction on launch site 2, we’re proud to call Wallops Island and Virginia our home,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO. “We’re very proud to deliver a new launch capability to the United States. We’re very proud to support U.S. missions with a U.S. launch vehicle from U.S. soil.”

Rocket Lab has its corporate headquarters in Southern California, and operates two rocket factories in California and in New Zealand.

The first launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron booster from Virginia is planned in the second quarter of 2020 — between the beginning of April and the end of June — with a research and development microsatellite for the U.S. Air Force, officials said Thursday. The mission will be managed by the U.S. military’s Space Test Program, which develops and launches scientific, experimental and technology demonstration satellites for the Defense Department.

It’s an honor and privilege to be launching a U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program payload as the inaugural mission from Launch Complex 2,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, in a statement. “We’ve already successfully delivered STP payloads on Electron from Launch Complex 1, and we’re proud to be providing that same rapid, responsive, and tailored access to orbit from U.S. soil.

“With the choice of two Rocket Lab launch sites offering more than 130 launch opportunities each year, our customers enjoy unmatched control over their launch schedule and orbital requirements,” Beck said. “Rocket Lab has made frequent, reliable and responsive access to space the new normal for small satellites.”

The satellite assigned to launch on the first Electron flight from the United States is named Monolith. Managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, Monolith will demonstrate the ability for small satellites to support large aperture payloads. In the case of Monolith, the Air Force wants to test a space weather instrument package, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Meagan Thrush, program element monitor for space launch and control.

The STP-27RM mission with the Monolith microsatellite is an extension of the Air Force’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, or RALI, program. The Air Force established the RALI program to procure launch services more quickly and at lower cost than through the military’s traditional launch acquisition schemes.

Rocket Lab’s two-stage Electron launcher stands around 55 feet (17 meters) tall and measures 3.9 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter. Powered by 3D-printed Rutherford engines, the kerosene-fueled rocket can lift up to 330 pounds of payload into a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) polar sun-synchronous orbit.

A dedicated Electron launch sells for as low as $7 million, significantly lower than the price of flights on larger rockets. The Electron is designed to give small satellites their own ride into orbit. Before smallsat launch companies like Rocket Lab, CubeSats and microsatellites typically launched as secondary payloads, with their orbital destinations and launch schedules at the whim of the demands of a larger mission.

“Launch Complex 2 gives us the capability to support directly a wide variety of government and commercial missions,” Beck said. “The launch site is primarily being designed to support government missions with additional security and capabilities, but LC-1 will remain our high-volume launch site for a majority of commercial missions.”

File photo of an Electron launch from New Zealand. Credit: Trevor Mahlmann/Rocket Lab

“Rocket Lab’s launch site at the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, strengthens the United States’ ability to provide responsive and reliable access to space,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the launch enterprise directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. “We look forward to Rocket Lab successfully launching the STP-27RM mission from Launch Complex 2 next spring, which will test new capabilities that we will need in the future.”

Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 2 facility is located at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, adjacent to pad 0A used to launch Northrop Grumman’s Antares rockets on resupply missions to the International Space Station.

The Antares launcher is more than twice the height of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, but Rocket Lab’s launch manifest projections suggest the Electron will fly from Wallops much more often than the Antares’ regular launch cadence of two flights per year.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is run by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, or Virginia Space, an organization created by the Virginia legislature to promote commercial space activity within the commonwealth. The spaceport now has three orbital-class launch facilities, one for Rocket Lab, one for the Antares rocket, and another used to launch solid-fueled Minotaur boosters.

Rocket Lab says construction of Launch Complex 2, which sits inside the perimeter fence of the Antares launch pad, started in February and was completed in 10 months. The new pad is designed to support up to 12 launches per year, including “rapid call-up” missions, giving the military a quick-response launch option, according to Rocket Lab.

Officials Thursday did not define whether the rapid call-up capability would mean Electron launches within days, weeks or months of tasking by the U.S. military.

Engineers developed the new launch pad based on the design of Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 facility in New Zealand, with a few upgrades to make it easier to maintain and operate.

“I know we set a U.S. (speed) record for building a launch pad , and I suspect a world record,” said Dale Nash, CEO and executive director of Virginia Space. “It is smaller than launch pad A (used for Antares), but it’s really not any less complex.”

One of the differences between Rocket Lab’s launch pad in New Zealand and the one in Virginia is in the launch mount.

“The launch mount itself in New Zealand will roll,” Nash said Thursday. “Here, it doesn’t. The rocket will roll on and roll off. The Integration and Control Facility, where they will process the rockets, is built so that you never have to lift the rocket. It can roll from the processing (facility) into the trailer, go out to the pad and stand up.”

“The opening of Launch Complex 2 is a significant milestone and a remarkable achievement made possible by the strong partnership with Rocket Lab and NASA,” Nash said in a statement. “Almost immediately after Rocket Lab’s selection of MARS as its U.S. launch site, engineers, managers and technicians worked tirelessly together across multiple time zones and two continents to make LC-2 a reality.”

“The fact that we have an operational launch site less than a year after construction began is testament to the hard work and dedication of the Virginia Space and NASA teams, as well as the unwavering support of our local suppliers,” said Shaun D’Mello, Rocket Lab’s vice president of launch.

This Oct. 29 image of a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket on pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport shows the black strongback structure at Rocket Lab’s neighboring Launch Complex 2 facility. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Rocket Lab launched six missions in 2019, and officials aim to achieve a more rapid launch cadence next year, with launches as often as every two weeks.

“This year, Electron was the fourth-most frequently launched vehicle in the world,” Beck said. “We’ve delivered 47 satellites to orbit so far, so we’re really excited to increase this cadence and this history here at LC-2.”

The company says more than 150 local construction workers and contractors were involved in the development of Launch Complex 2 in Virginia. The 66-ton launch platform and 7.6-ton strongback were supplied by Steel America, a Virginia-based company.

Rocket Lab’s Integration and Control Facility, or ICF, at the nearby Wallops Research Park will support payload and launch vehicle processing before liftoff. The processing facility will also be home to a launch control center and office space.

Up to four Electron rockets will be housed at the ICF at one time, D’Mello said. The rockets will initially be transported to Wallops from Rocket Lab’s factory in Auckland, New Zealand, and future vehicles will be shipped from the company’s plant in Huntington Beach, California, as production ramps up there.

“We will then be able to have Electrons in standby, truly ready for their call to orbit on a short and responsive notice,” D’Mello said.

The company says it expects to employ up to 30 people at the Virginia launch site in engineering, launch safety and administrative positions in the coming year.

With the launch pad construction complete, teams at Wallops are beginning checkouts and testing ahead of the first Electron launch campaign. One of the first tests will involve flowing super-cold fluid through the launch pad’s plumbing to verify it can handle cryogenic propellants used by the Electron rocket.

“We are going to go into the cryo shock (testing), meaning we will chill the system down beginning with liquid nitrogen next week,” Nash said. “You learn what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully, there are not many things that don’t.”

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