September 22, 2021

Rocket Lab returns to service with “flawless” launch for U.S. military


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Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle lifts off at 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT; 6 p.m. local time) Thursday from Zealand. Credit: Rocket Lab

Resuming launches after a mission failure two months ago, Rocket Lab successfully placed a small U.S. military research and development satellite into orbit Thursday following a fiery liftoff from New Zealand on a flight that was originally supposed to launch from the company’s new pad in Virginia.

The 59-foot-tall (18-meter) Electron rocket ignited its nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford engines and climbed away from Launch Complex 1 on the North Island of New Zealand at 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT) Thursday.

Liftoff from Rocket Lab’s privately-owned launch base on Mahia Peninsula occurred at 6 p.m. local time, just after sunset.

Heading east from Mahia, the rocket’s first stage burned its nine engines for about two-and-a-half minutes, followed by a six-minute firing of the second stage engine to reach a preliminary parking orbit.

A kick stage deployed from the the Electron rocket’s second stage to begin a coast across the Pacific Ocean, Central America, and the Caribbean Sea before igniting its Curie engine reach a circular orbit about 372 miles (600 kilometers) above Earth at an inclination of 37 degrees to the equator.

Rocket Lab, a California-based company founded in New Zealand, confirmed a good deployment of the U.S. military’s small experimental Monolith spacecraft about 52 minutes after liftoff.

“Payload deployed, flawless launch and mission by the team!” tweeted Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO.

The mission was the 21st flight of a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle since 2017, and the eighth to carry a payload for a U.S. military or intelligence agency customer.

It was also the first Rocket Lab mission since May 15, when an Electron rocket failed before reaching orbit with two commercial BlackSky Earth-imaging satellites.

Rocket Lab’s internal investigation, with oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration, concluded the failure was caused by a problem with the igniter system on the Electron launcher’s second stage engine.

“This induced a corruption of signals within the engine computer that caused the Rutherford engine’s thrust vector control (TVC) to deviate outside nominal parameters and resulted in the engine computer commanding zero pump speed, shutting down the engine,” Rocket Lab said in a statement earlier this month.

Live video from beamed down from the rocket May 15 showed the second stage’s kerosene-fueled Rutherford engine igniting and immediately begin to tumble about three minutes into the flight. The engine shut down prematurely after firing for a few seconds, well short of a planned six-minute burn.

The rocket and its two BlackSky payloads fell into the Pacific Ocean downrange from the launch site in New Zealand.

Rocket Lab said the igniter problem “resulted from a previously undetectable failure mode within the ignition system that occurs under a unique set of environmental pressures and conditions.”

The company said engineers found no evidence of the problem during pre-flight testing, which included more than 400 seconds of burn time for the same engine. But Rocket Lab said it was able to replicate the issue after the flight, and teams “implemented redundancies in the ignition system to prevent any future reoccurrence, including modifications to the igniter’s design and manufacture.”

The May 15 mission was the third time an Electron rocket failed to reach orbit on 20 attempts since 2017.

Engineers traced the cause of an Electron second stage failure in July 2020 to a faulty electrical connector, which detached in flight and led to an early engine shutdown, dooming seven small commercial satellites.

Rocket Lab said it implemented improved testing to better screen for bad connectors, and the company successfully launched its next Electron mission less than two months later.

Rocket Lab racked up six straight successful Electron missions before the launch failure May 15. The company’s first orbital launch attempt in 2017 failed to reach orbit due to a ground system failure that caused safety teams to send a flight termination command to the rocket.

The small launch company says it is ready to resume a busy flight cadence through the rest of the year. Rocket Lab is close to beginning launches from two new pads — one in Virginia and another adjacent to its existing launch complex in New Zealand — to accommodate a more rapid flight rate.

Thursday’s mission, designated STP-27RM, was originally supposed to launch from Rocket Lab’s new pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. But delays in NASA’s certification of the Electron rocket’s new autonomous flight safety system have kept Rocket Lab from beginning service from the Virginia launch base.

In June, officials at Wallops said they hope to complete certification of the new autonomous flight safety system by the end of the year, enabling the first Rocket Lab launch from U.S. soil. With the launch of the military’s Monolith mission moved from Virginia to New Zealand, Rocket Lab’s first flight from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops will likely launch NASA’s CAPSTONE CubeSat payload to the moon.

The CAPSTONE mission is scheduled for launch late this year, according to NASA and Rocket Lab.

The Space Test Program, which helps manage development of the military’s experimental satellites, procured the launch of the Monolith satellite with the Rocket Systems Launch Program, part of the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

Other partners on the mission include the Defense Innovation Unit and the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, a program that books rides to orbit for small military satellites on emerging commercial small satellite launchers.

The Monolith satellite, built by the non-profit Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University, will demonstrate the use of a deployable sensor that is relatively large in mass compared to the mass of the spacecraft itself, according to the Space and Missile Systems Center.

The deployment of the sensor will change the satellite’s dynamic properties, testing the spacecraft’s ability to maintain stable attitude control, military officials said.

When the military announced the Monolith mission in 2019, officials said the satellite’s sensor package is aimed at space weather monitoring.

Data from the Monolith mission will help engineers design future small satellites to host deployable sensors, such as weather monitoring instruments. The Space Force said that will help reduce the cost, complexity, and development timelines of future missions.

“The satellite will also provide a platform to test future space protection capabilities,” the Space Force said.

Rocket Lab did not attempt to recover the Electron rocket’s first stage booster on Thursday’s mission. The company has retrieved two Electron boosters from the Pacific Ocean as engineers move toward reusing the rocket’s first stage, an innovation Rocket Lab says will allow for a faster launch rate and lower costs.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is sized to deliver small satellites to orbit, providing a dedicated ride for spacecraft that would otherwise have to fly as a lower-priority payload on a larger launch vehicle.

The Electron rocket can deliver a payload of up to 440 pounds (200 kilograms) to a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit, about 1% of the lift capability of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher. Rocket Lab sells dedicated Electron missions for as little as $7 million.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


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