Rocket Lab set to launch super-secret satellite for German company

An Electron rocket stands on Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1A for the company’s first mission of 2021. Credit: Rocket Lab

A small communications satellite built by the German company OHB — a payload so secret that no one has officially disclosed its name or end user — is set to ride a Rocket Lab Electron launcher into orbit Saturday from New Zealand.

The European-built spacecraft is set for launch during a seven-minute window opening at 2:38 a.m. EST (0738 GMT; 8:38 p.m. New Zealand time). It will be the 18th flight of an Electron launcher built by Rocket Lab, and the company’s first mission of 2021.

The two-stage rocket will head south from Rocket Lab’s spaceport at Mahia Peninsula, located on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, to deliver its clandestine cargo to a polar orbit hundreds of miles above Earth, according to a mission press kit.

But officials are saying little about the payload the Electron rocket is carrying into space.

OHB Group, which builds small and medium-sized satellites, procured the launch from Rocket Lab through its subsidiary OHB Cosmos, according to Rocket Lab.

The payload from OHB is a “single communication microsatellite that will enable specific frequencies to support future services from orbit,” Rocket Lab said in a statement. OHB and Rocket Lab have released no additional details about the satellite, which was built by OHB divisions in Germany, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, said the launch will take place within six months of the contract signing with Rocket Lab and OHB, a relatively fast turnaround for a launch service agreement.

“By flying as a dedicated mission on Electron, OHB and their mission partners have control over launch timing, orbit, integration schedule, and other mission parameters,” Beck said in a statement.

Responding to questions from Spaceflight Now, an OHB spokesperson declined to identify the end user of the satellite or provide any other details about its mission.

“OHB has purchased an Electron launcher for a customer,” the spokesperson said.

A short prepared statement from OHB, based in Bremen, Germany, also included no further information about the nature of the mission.

“OHB have developed, built and tested a satellite on behalf of the customer. We will also operate it until the end of the satellite’s operational life,” said Dr. Lutz Bertling, member of the OHB executive board and responsible for digitalization, strategy and business development.

The only hint about the identity of the satellite and OHB’s possible customer for the mission was revealed in an image of the Electron rocket’s payload fairing, which has a pair of mission logos.

One of the symbols includes an apparent illustration of the satellite on-board the rocket, showing the spacecraft with what appears to be a pair of circular communications antennas. The letters BIU and GMS-T are visible on each side of the satellite illustration.

Sleuthing by Alexandre Najjar, a launch vehicle and satellite market consultant for Euroconsult, revealed what might be the customer for the mission.

“I think I have ID-ed the mystery OHB payload!” Najjar tweeted, adding that the satellite “seems” to be a prototype for a low Earth orbit broadband network linked to a Chinese company named GMS, also known as Shanghai Spacecom Satellite Technology.

GMS has a business relationship with KLEO Connect, a German company with Chinese financing that seeks to develop a fleet of small satellites to provide industrial asset tracking and data relay services. KLEO Connect’s first two technology demonstration satellites launched on a Chinese rocket in 2019.

Najjar wrote on Twitter that details on the arrangement between OHB and GMS is “probably secret due to Germany-China relations.”

An image of the payload fairing for Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2021 provides one of the few hints about the super-secret payload on-board. Credit: Rocket Lab

With its newest upgrades, Rocket Lab’s 59-foot-tall (18-meter) Electron launcher can carry about 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of payload to a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) polar orbit. Rocket Lab sells Electron flights for as little as $7 million, offering small satellite operators dedicated rides for their payloads.

On Saturday’s flight, the Electron’s first stage will burn its nine Rutherford engines, fed by kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants, for about two-and-a-half minutes.

The rocket’s single Rutherford second stage engine will inject a kick stage and the OHB-built payload into an elliptical transfer orbit, then the kick stage will “perform a series of burns with its relightable Curie engine to raise apogee and act as a space tug to deliver the OHB Cosmos’ payload to its precise orbital destination,” Rocket Lab said.

The Curie engine will perform a burn to lower its orbit after deploying its satellite cargo, enabling the spent rocket stage to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up faster to prevent it from becoming another piece of space junk.

U.S.-based Rocket Lab has nicknamed its first mission of 2021 “Another One Leaves the Crust.”

Rocket Lab does not plan to recover the Electron’s first stage booster on this mission. The company retrieved an Electron first stage for the first time following a launch in November, an initial step in eventually reusing Electron boosters to increase Rocket Lab’s launch rate.

Rocket Lab’s seven Electron flights in 2020 set a record for the company, which says it has a “packed” launch schedule from three pads in 2021.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.