Rocket Lab primed for busy year after first launch from Virginia

Nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford engines power Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher off the launch pad Tuesday night at Wallops Island, Virginia. Credit: Rocket Lab / Trevor Mahlmann

Rocket Lab’s first mission from a launch pad in Virginia delivered three small commercial satellites into orbit Tuesday night, starting what the company hopes will be a banner year with at least 15 flights from the new U.S. launch site and a spaceport in New Zealand.

The long-delayed mission, kept on the ground by software issues on a new NASA-developed flight termination unit, took off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport co-located with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at 6 p.m. EST (2300 GMT) Tuesday. Rocket Lab’s 59-foot-tall (18-meter) Electron booster quickly zipped off the launch pad and flew southeast over the Atlantic Ocean, light from its nine kerosene-engines dimming in the night sky as it climbed into the upper atmosphere.

The rocket’s Rutherford main engines produced more than 50,000 pounds of thrust to push the small satellite launcher higher above the Atlantic. Two-and-a-half minutes later, the rocket shed its no-longer-needed first stage booster to fall uncontrolled into the sea. An upper stage engine ignited for more than six minutes to deliver a final piece of the rocket, called a kick stage, to a preliminary orbit around Earth.

The kick stage coasted for about 45 minutes before a minute-long burn to maneuver into a more stable orbit at an altitude of around 341 miles (550 kilometers) and an inclination of 40.5 degrees to the equator. The rocket then deployed three small microsatellites for Virginia-based HawkEye 360, each about 66 pounds (30 kilograms), to begin missions detecting and characterizing radar and radio transmissions for commercial and government clients.

Rocket Lab had to wait more than 30 minutes longer than expected to confirm the final milestones in the mission because a ground station in Australia dropped offline, and was unable to relay telemetry from the rocket back to launch engineers in New Zealand and the United States. The launch team confirmed the successful payload deployment during a later pass over a California ground station.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, said in an interview with Spaceflight Now that the ground station in Western Australia experienced “some data loss and some networking issues.”

But the Electron rocket and the new launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia, located on the Eastern Shore about 110 miles (175 kilometers) southeast of Washington, appeared to work flawlessly on Tuesday night’s mission.

“Electron is already the leading small orbital rocket globally, and today’s perfect mission from a new pad is testament to our team’s unrelenting commitment to mission success,” Beck said in a press release. “After our busiest launch year yet in 2022 with nine successful missions, what better way to kick off the new year than by launching Virginia-built spacecraft from a Virginia launch site, enabled by our rapidly growing Virginia-based team.”

The launch was the 33rd mission, and the 30th successful flight, by Rocket Lab, a company founded in New Zealand that now has its corporate headquarters in Long Beach, California. All 32 of Rocket Lab’s previous flights, which began in 2017, departed from the company’s private-owned spaceport on Mahia Peninsula, located on the North Island of New Zealand, driving distance from a rocket factory in Auckland.

Rocket Lab launched nine mission last year, a record for the company, and plans at least 15 launches in 2023, Beck told Spaceflight Now in an interview after Tuesday night’s flight.

“The cadence will be pretty rapid,” Beck said.

With the new launch pad in Virginia now online, about four to six of the 15 launches Rocket Lab has scheduled this year will take off from Wallops Island, according to Beck. The next Rocket Lab mission will launch from Virginia, and the rocket for that flight has already been delivered after a trans-ocean shipment from New Zealand.

A date and a payload for the the next Rocket Lab mission have not been released, but it is likely planned for some time in February.

The Electron rocket  is sized to haul small satellites into orbit. The Electron can haul up to 440 pounds (200 kilograms) to a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) polar orbit, according to Rocket Lab, which has carved a niche in the global launch market for delivering small payloads on dedicated rides to low Earth orbit. Larger rockets, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9, can carry numerous small satellites on rideshare missions, but often does not release the payloads in each customer’s preferred orbit.

Rocket Lab’s 33rd mission, and first from U.S. soil, lifted off from Wallops Island, Virginia, on Tuesday night. Credit: Rocket Lab / Brady Kenniston

Rocket Lab’s launch pad in Virginia, called Launch Complex 2, gives the company three active launch pads, including two facilities at the Mahia Peninsula location in New Zealand.

The new Electron launch pad in Virginia is designed to support up to 12 launches per year, including “rapid call-up” missions, giving the military a quick-response launch option, Rocket Lab said when construction was completed at the new launch complex in 2019.

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 on Wallops Island now has three orbital-class launch facilities, one for Rocket Lab, one for Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket, and another used to launch solid-fueled Minotaur boosters.

Rocket Lab’s pad sits next to the Antares launch site on Wallops Island.

Rocket Lab’s hangar at Wallops is designed to accommodate up to three Electron rockets at a time. With its new Virginia launch site online, Rocket Lab says it will have flexibility to move missions between different launch ranges. And some U.S. government customers prefer to launch their payloads from the United States.

Rocket Lab also plans to launch its larger next-generation reusable rocket, called Neutron, from a new launch pad on Wallops Island. The company is building a factory and integration and test facilities for the Neutron program in Virginia, combining manufacturing and operations capabilities at the spaceport on the Eastern Shore. The Neutron’s first stage will also land at a site on Wallops Island.

Rocket Lab’s launch Tuesday night also debuted a new flight safety system developed as a cheaper, more flexible, customizable autonomous flight termination unit for a new generation of commercial launch vehicles.

Other companies, like SpaceX, have developed proprietary autonomous flight termination systems for use on their own rockets. The NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit, or NAFTU, can be adopted by multiple launch service providers.

But software problems with the NAFTU system delayed the debut of Rocket Lab in Virginia more than two years.

NASA developed the NAFTU system in partnership with the U.S. military and the FAA. It’s designed to help streamline rocket operations from Wallops and other launch ranges around the country.

David Pierce, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said the rocket-agnostic autonomous flight termination system will help enable “responsive launch capability for the United States.”

“It’s been nothing short of a herculean effort to get us to this point, which I view as a turning in launch range operations, not just at Wallops but across the United States,” Pierce said. Eighteen companies have requested access to the NAFTU software code to merge it with their launch vehicles.

NASA hoped to have the NAFTU software ready for Rocket Lab to launch its first mission from Virginia in mid-2020. But Pierce said engineers “discovered of a number of errors in the software code” during validation testing. NASA partnered with the Space Force and FAA to fix and retest the software.

A flight termination system is a standard part of all space launches from U.S. spaceports, ensuring that a rocket can be destroyed if it veers off course and threatens populated areas after liftoff. With autonomous flight termination systems, range safety teams no longer need to be on standby to send a manual destruct command to the rocket.

The NAFTU was provisionally certified for Rocket Lab’s first launch from Virginia last month, but bad weather prevented the mission from getting off the ground during a launch attempt Dec. 18. The mission was delayed to a backup series of launch dates this month.

The new NASA-developed flight termination system should be fully certified for future missions by Jan. 31, NASA said.

Three commercial radio frequency surveillance satellites for HawkEye 360 were the payloads for Rocket Lab’s first mission from Virginia. This image shows the satellites mated to Rocket Lab’s kick stage. Credit: Rocket Lab

With the two-and-a-half year delay in beginning launches from Virginia, Rocket Lab had to move the launch of the U.S. military payload originally slated for the first Electron flight from Wallops to the company’s New Zealand spaceport.

Three microsatellites for HawkEye 360 instead rode into orbit on Rocket Lab’s Virginia launch debut.

“We’re proud to be a Virginia-based company, with Virginia-developed technology, launching out of the Virginia spaceport,” said John Serafini, HawkEye 360’s CEO, in a press release. “We selected Rocket Lab because of the flexibility it enables for us to place the satellites into an orbit tailored to benefit our customers. Deploying our satellites on Rocket Lab’s inaugural launch is a giant leap in Virginia’s flourishing space economy.”

HawkEye 360 said its ground team established contact with all three new satellites shortly after Tuesday night’s launch, confirming they were healthy and in the correct orbit after separating from Rocket Lab’s kick stage.

The mission marked the sixth launch of HawkEye 360 satellites, and was the first of three dedicated Rocket Lab missions contracted by HawkEye 360. All of HawkEye 360’s satellites so far have launched on rideshare missions aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

HawkEye 360 has launched 12 operational satellites since early 2021, helping detect, characterize, and locate the source of radio transmissions. Such data are useful in government intelligence-gathering operations, combating illegal fishing and poaching, and securing national borders, according to HawkEye 360.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.