Rocket Lab to deploy two more BlackSky imaging satellites

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle during a countdown rehearsal earlier this week. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab will launch a mission from New Zealand on Saturday to place two more small optical imaging satellites into orbit for BlackSky, the U.S. remote sensing company.

The two satellites will ride a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle into orbit, targeting an altitude of 267 miles (430 kilometers), to join BlackSky’s growing remote sensing fleet.

Launch of the Electron rocket is scheduled for 8:10 a.m. EDT (1210 GMT) Saturday, or 1:10 a.m. local time in New Zealand on Sunday. The mission will take off from Launch Complex 1A, one of two pads at Rocket Lab’s privately-operated spaceport on Mahia Peninsula on the North Island of New Zealand.

The 59-foot-tall (18-meter) Electron rocket — sized to haul small payloads into space — will head east from the launch pad, targeting a mid-inclination orbit with the two BlackSky imaging satellites.

The launch was delayed for unspecified reasons from earlier in the year at the request of BlackSky. Rocket Lab shuffled its schedule and launched a different mission Feb. 28. The launch Saturday will be Rocket Lab’s second flight of the year.

Rocket Lab and BlackSky announced a multi-launch agreement agreement last year. The mission Saturday will be Rocket Lab’s fourth dedicated mission for BlackSky, each carrying two satellites in an arrangement made through the small satellite launch broker Spaceflight.

“We’re looking forward to again providing BlackSky and Spaceflight with another dedicated Electron mission that delivers the flexibility they need to meet the unique requirements of BlackSky’s capacity-on-demand constellation,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO. “We’re proud to continue our partnership with them and look forward to helping them grow their constellation with this next mission.”

Ground teams integrate a BlackSky satellite with Rocket Lab’s kick stage in New Zealand. Credit: Rocket Lab

Producing more than 50,000 pounds of thrust, the Electron’s kerosene-burning first stage will steer the rocket on a course east from the New Zealand coastline. The booster will shut down and detach two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff to fall into the Pacific Ocean.

Rocket Lab does not plan to recover the Electron booster on Saturday’s mission.

A single Rutherford engine on the second stage will ignite to lob the twin BlackSky satellites into a preliminary parking orbit. During the six-minute second stage burn, the Electron rocket will shed its clamshell-like carbon fiber composite nose cone and swap batteries powering the engine’s pumps.

The Electron’s second stage will release a kick stage about nine minutes after launch. The kick stage will fly halfway around the world before igniting its Curie engine to place the BlackSky satellites into an orbit targeted at an altitude 267 miles, with an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.

The BlackSky payloads are scheduled to deploy from the kick stage about an hour after liftoff.

Each BlackSky satellite weighs about 121 pounds (55 kilograms). The satellites are built by LeoStella, a joint venture between BkackSky and Thales Alenia Space, a major European satellite manufacturer. LeoStella’s production facility is located in Tukwila, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.

BlackSky, with offices in Seattle and Herndon, Virginia, is deploying a fleet of small remote sensing satellites to provide high-resolution Earth imagery to commercial and government clients.

One big customer for BlackSky, with offices near Seattle and in the Washington, D.C., metro area, is the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. BlackSky has agreements to sell commercial imagery to NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Going into this weekend’s mission, BlackSky has launched 13 commercial optical Earth observation satellites since 2018, following a 2016 launch with the company’s first technology demonstration spacecraft.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.