Rocket Lab is now set to return to launch action in November, with a realigned attempt to launch the “It’s Business Time” mission from its private orbital launch pad in New Zealand, Launch Complex-1. The scrubbed attempt in June required the replacement of motor controllers on the rocket. In announcing the new date, the company also noted it would take the opportunity to conduct the fast turnaround processing that it hopes will become commonplace for the Electron rocket, with a second launch – for NASA – the following month, in December.
Via a previously embargoed release, Rocket Lab said the “It’s Business Time” mission will launch in November, with the ELaNa XIX mission for NASA to follow soon after in December from the same LC-1 pad.
Launching at least once per month is a future goal for Rocket Lab, with founder and CEO, Peter Beck, noting the speedy turnaround between launches is possible thanks to designing the Electron rocket for rapid manufacture, as well as Launch Complex-1’s ability to process and launch vehicles quickly.
“This year our team focused on scaling up production to churn out Electron rockets at a rate of one per month. Now that we’re hitting that production rate, we’re working to get them launched at the same frequency by the end of this year, and increasing cadence into 2019.
“It’s an incredibly exciting time for the small satellite industry. Everyone on the planet will benefit from easier access to orbit in terms of innovation, research and exploration, and we’re excited to be the team enabling that.”
Rocket Lab stood down from an earlier launch window for It’s Business Time in June 2018, after unusual behavior was identified in a motor controller during pre-launch operations. Initially, it was thought the recycle would be a matter of days, before the decision was made to rollback the vehicle and change out the controller.
The team has identified an issue with the motor controller, so we're scrubbing for the day to review data. Stay tuned for updates! pic.twitter.com/q74i0mx7tJ
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) June 27, 2018
Now Rocket Lab has noted that, following analysis, the motor controllers have been modified and – as such – required new qualification testing ahead of the next launch which won’t take place until November.
This launch will carry five payload elements, four satellites and one technology demonstrator, to orbit on Electron’s first operational flight. The mission itself is a rideshare between four separate entities and showcases Electron’s diverse rideshare capability on the small satellite launch market.
The total payload mass for the flight is just over 40kg (88 lb), much less than the 225kg (496 lb) payload maximum and 150kg (331 lb) nominal payload mass Electron is capable of taking to a 500 km sun-sync orbit. The total payload mass for the mission is comprised of two LEMUR-2 satellites, a single satellite for GeoOptics Inc., the IRVINE01 CubeSat, and NABEO for High Performance Space Structure Systems GmbH.
After It’s Business Time, the next Electron off the pad will be NASA’s 19th Educational Launch of Nanosatellites mission, or ELaNa-XIX.
The mission is also NASA’s first ever Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) mission, constituting the smallest class of dedicated launch services used by NASA.
“It marks a significant milestone for Rocket Lab in providing such access to space for a NASA-sponsored mission of small satellites,” added Rocket Lab in its release.
The launch is manifested with innovative research and development payloads from NASA and educational institutions that will conduct a wide variety of new, on-orbit science.
Applications of the CubeSats booked on the mission include research such as measuring radiation in the Van Allen belts to understand their impact on spacecraft, through to monitoring space weather.
More news from Rocket Lab is expected over the coming weeks, with the announcement of its preferred US launch site.
We're thrilled to confirm we're building a US launch site for Electron. Four space ports are shortlisted: Cape Canaveral, Wallops Flight Facility, Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base. Confirmed site to be announced in August. https://t.co/BZ7BQ0HbMg
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) July 10, 2018
No specific date – other than this month – per the announcement has been noted at this time.
“We get a tremendous amount out of New Zealand,” stated Mr. Beck to NASASpaceflight in an interview with Chris Gebhardt in March.
“We have the largest amount of launch azimuths out of any launch site out of New Zealand. Which is really good.”
However, the Māhia Peninsula launch site is located at 39° south latitude, and due to the geography of the region, a 39° inclination is the minimum inclination achievable from the New Zealand launch site.
Customers wishing to achieve orbital inclinations between 0° and 38° latitude will need to make use of another launch site, specifically the Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida – a location Rocket Lab is looking to expand into.
“If we launch out of KSC, it’s much closer to the equator for those low inclination missions and Kodiak is good for sun-synchronous payloads,” added Mr. Beck, before noting the current goal of one launch per month will increase to at least one launch every two weeks. As such more than one pad will be required.
“Once we hit a cadence of one every two weeks, then we need a second pad. To go to one a week, we need a third pad down there.”
Notably, an eye on a third pad also brought Scotland into the mix, per the recent drive from the UK space agency to foster launch services from the north of the country.
Could Scotland be the home of LC-3? We’re reviewing @spacegovuk's Sutherland site. Unrelated: I am not so sure about a Rocket Lab kilt, I’ve been there and it’s cold. Seems like underwear is a solid idea.
— Peter Beck (@Peter_J_Beck) July 17, 2018
“So we’ll start building those pads in concert with ramping production,” he added.
The ability to ramp up the company’s launch schedule will be tested for the first time with these two launches within weeks of each other.