Rocket Lab launches NASA, Korean payloads on Electron flight

An artist’s concept of NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System spacecraft in orbit. Graphic: NASA/Aero Animation/Ben Schweighart

Rocket Lab completed its fifth launch of the year, which was a rideshare mission between the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and NASA. This was also the company’s 47th Electron launch to date.

Liftoff from Launch Complex 1’s Pad B in New Zealand happened at 10:32 a.m. NZT on April 24 (6:32 p.m. EDT, 2232 UTC on April 23). The team worked through a ground systems issue that delayed liftoff by about 17 minutes.

Rocket Lab will not attempt to recover the first stage booster following stage separation on this flight.

The primary payload on the mission was the NEONSat-1, an Earth observation satellite that is designed with “a high-resolution optical camera designed to monitor for natural disasters along the Korean Peninsula by pairing its images with artificial intelligence,” according to KAIST.

NEONSat-1, which was developed for the Satellite Technology Research Center (SaTReC) at KAIST, was deployed into a 520 km (323.1 mi) circular Earth orbit. As the name suggests, it is the first satellite in the New-space Earth Observation Satellite program, which is funded by the Korean government’s Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT). Follow-on satellites are expected to be launched in 2026 and 2027.

Come sail away

Also sharing a ride to space is NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3). This is a technology demonstration, which will harness the power of sunlight through the spacecraft’s solar sail propulsion system.

After the deployment of NEONSat-1, the Electron’s Kick Stage reignited to raise its apogee to 1,000 km (621.4 mi). There was a third burn to circularize the orbit before the ACS3 is deployed using Exolaunch’s EXOpod Nova deployer.

The spacecraft itself is based around a twelve-unit (12U) CubeSat bus, the size of a microwave oven, which was built by Kongsberg NanoAvionics. It will deploy booms that are made of a combination of flexible polymer and carbon fiber to a length of about 30 feet (9.1 meters).

It takes about 25 minutes for the solar sails to fully deploy, after which it will measure 80 square meters (~860 square feet), which is about the size of six parking spots, according to NASA. The agency said cameras mounted onto the spacecraft will be able to capture deployment, allowing researchers to get a visual understanding of how well the functions performed.

Mario Perez inspects with a UV-light the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) spacecraft in the Ames Integration Facility in N213 room 104. Image: NASA/Brandon Torres

Once deployed, NASA said it might be visible in the sky, under the right lighting conditions. It’s expected to be “as bright as Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.”

“Seven meters of the deployable booms can roll up into a shape that fits in your hand,” said Alan Rhodes, the mission’s lead systems engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley in a statement. “The hope is that the new technologies verified on this spacecraft will inspire others to use them in ways we haven’t even considered.”

Researchers believe the booms can be built to support solar sails as large as 500 square meters (~5,400 square feet) with future designs going as large as 2,000 square meters (~21,500 square feet), which is about half the size of a soccer field.

“This technology sparks the imagination, reimagining the whole idea of sailing and applying it to space travel,” said Rudy Aquilina, project manager of the solar sail mission at NASA Ames in a statement. “Demonstrating the abilities of solar sails and lightweight, composite booms is the next step in using this technology to inspire future missions.”