Rocket Lab launches NOAA-funded satellite for wildlife tracking

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle lifts off from New Zealand the GAzelle satellite. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab launched an Electron rocket Friday from its privately-run spaceport in New Zealand, boosting a 260-pound satellite into orbit on a $64 million NOAA-funded mission to relay environmental data from remote weather stations and help track global wildlife movements.

The mission is a partnership between General Atomics, NOAA, and CNES, the French space agency. It is the latest in a line of Argos environmental data relay satellites launched since 1978.

The GAzelle spacecraft — the GA stands for General Atomics — took off on Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher from Mahia Peninsula on the North Island of New Zealand at 1:09:21 p.m. EDT (1709:21 GMT) Friday, or 6:09 a.m. local time Saturday at the launch site.

The mission hauled the GAzelle satellite into a polar orbit about 466 miles (750 kilometers) above Earth, where it will begin a planned operating life of five years.

Rocket Lab’s Electron booster ignited its nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford engines to begin the climb into orbit from Launch Complex 1B, generating more than 50,000 pounds of thrust to power the nearly 60-foot-tall (18-meter) all-black carbon fiber rocket through a cloud layer over the launch base. The rocket headed south from the New Zealand coastline, accelerated faster than the speed of sound in less than a minute, then shut off its first stage about two-and-a-half minutes into the flight.

The booster detached to fall into the Pacific Ocean — Rocket Lab didn’t plan to recover it on Friday’s mission — as the second stage fired into orbit with the GAzelle spacecraft. A kick stage did the final maneuver to place the satellite into the intended polar orbit.

GAzelle, formerly known as Orbital Test Bed 3, is a commercial satellite built and owned by General Atomics, which manufactured the spacecraft in Centennial, Colorado. A General Atomics spokesperson said the satellite weighed about 260 pounds (118 kilograms) at launch. The craft’s primary payload is a government-sponsored instrument called Argos 4 for NOAA and CNES, the French space agency.

The Argos program launched its first space sensor on a satellite in 1978, and U.S. and French officials have developed several new generations of Argos instruments over the last 40 years. The first fourth-generation Argos mission launched Friday on the GAzelle satellite.

“With this launch, the Argos system will be improved and extended, which will benefit all current and future users around the world,” said Elsayed Talaat, director of the office of projects, planning, and analysis for NOAA’s satellite division. “There are several thousand individual users or programs using Argos to track more than 13,000 objects today, primarily for wildlife tracking.”

The Argos instruments collect faint radio signals emitted by small transmitters on animals, weather buoys, and remote science stations around the world, allowing researchers to access environmental data such as air pressure and temperature and sea surface temperature. Scientists also use the Argos satellites to track wildlife migratory patterns.

The GAzelle satellite mated to Rocket Lab’s kick stage. Credit: Rocket Lab

The Argos 4 system flying on the GAzelle satellite has an expanded frequency range, allowing it receive signals from lower power transmitters.

“For example, Argos 4 will be able to monitor large migrations of birds or various animal species thanks to its ability to capture very low signals from miniaturized beacons,” said Sophie Coutin-Faye, head of the Argos project office at CNES, the French space agency, which supplied the Argos 4 instrument for integration on the GAzelle satellite.

“These improvements and the expanded coverage that the upcoming launches will provide, will make it easier for current and new users to collect more data, from many more beacons, across the globe and with much better data timeliness,” Coutin-Faye said.

Argos works by measuring the Doppler shift in radio signals, allowing scientists to locate a transmitter — such as one attached to a bird, sea turtle, or marine mammal — without requiring a GPS navigation fix.

“Argos platforms also include a wide variety of meteorological and oceanographic applications, from drift buoys to profiling floats to remote weather stations. Data from these worldwide platforms are provided to the world meteorological organizations global telecommunication system for use in weather and ocean prediction models,” Talaat said.

General Atomics’ GAzelle satellite, hosting the Argos 4 payload, is encapsulated inside the payload fairing of its Rocket Lab Electron launcher. Credit: Rocket Lab

“Argos is unique,” said Melinda Holland, chair of Argos Alliance and CEO of Wildlife Computers, a major provider of Argos telemetry instruments for marine animal studies.

“No other satellite system has the same global coverage, supports very small, low powered transmitters, and has transmissions that require less than one second,” Holland said. “This makes Argos the only currently available satellite system suitable for briefly surfacing marine animals such as whales, seals, and sea turtles, and even non-air breathing animals such as billfish, sharks and rays.”

The next step in the Argos program will be the launch of a constellation of 25 nanosatellites with Argos receivers in 2023 and 2024. The 25 small satellites will launch on five dedicated launches by Rocket Lab.

General Atomics’ GAzelle satellite also carries a radiation monitoring instrument.

“Lofting the Argos 4 payload will significantly increase the speed and reach of the Argos constellation, joining its sisters in space to collect global animal movement and migration data,” said Greg Burgess, vice president of space systems at General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems Group. “For this program, General Atomics is providing a true end to end commercial space capability by designing and building the satellite, hosting a payload for our customer, and performing all of the testing and operations of the satellite. We have procured the launch service from Rocket Lab and contracted with KSAT to provide a commercial path for rapidly getting the data to researchers worldwide.”

Rocket Lab’s patch for the “It Argos Up From Here” mission. Credit: Rocket Lab

The launch of the GAzelle satellite Friday marked Rocket Lab’s eighth mission of the year, setting a new annual launch record for the commercial space company. Rocket Lab has at least two more Electron flights on its launch schedule before the end of the year, including the company’s first mission from a new launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

That mission will be Rocket Lab’s first launch from U.S. soil, using an Electron rocket to place a batch of small radio frequency monitoring satellites into orbit for Hawkeye 360. All 31 Electron rocket flights to date have lifted off from New Zealand.

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