Rocket Lab to return in November – includes additional payloads

by Chris Bergin

Rocket Lab has confirmed its 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 set for November 11. The scrubbed attempt in June required the replacement of motor controllers on the rocket. In announcing the new date, two additional spacecraft will ride on the Electron, while 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.

A few months ago, 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 – hopefully in December – from the same LC-1 pad. On Tuesday, Rocket Lab confirmed the date as November 11.

In the run up to the launch date being set, Rocket Lab also noted they had accepted two additional passengers to ride on their upcoming launch.

Fleet Space Technologies’ two ‘Proxima’ satellites are the first scheduled launch of commercial CubeSats from an Australian company during this November mission – which will form the foundation of a global IoT communications constellation providing internet connectivity to remote regions of the planet.

The Proxima I and II satellites are a pair of identical 1.5 U CubeSats designed and built by Fleet. The satellites will mark the first commercial tests of Fleet’s software-defined radios, enabling it to transmit data efficiently across both S-band and L-band frequencies in space.

“We’re thrilled to add Fleet’s Proxima satellites to the It’s Business Time manifest. Fleet’s planned constellation of more than 100 satellites will enable greater connectivity across the globe and provide better access to data about our planet,” noted Rocket Lab Chief Executive, Peter Beck.

Fleet Space’s two satellites added to Electron’s flight.

Fleet Space noted that “rapid manifesting and integration time” was a key attraction to Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle.

This rapid turnaround is a key goal for the company, not least its launch frequency.

Launching at least once per month is a future goal for Rocket Lab, with 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.

The Electron “Still Testing” rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

“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.

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 was originally 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.

This in turn allowed for the addition of the two Fleet Space satellites.

The total payload mass for the mission also includes 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.

Despite the standdown of late, Rocket Lab has been busy with announcing news, including the announcement of its preferred US launch site.

“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.”

Rocket Lab’s launch site in New Zealand – via Rocket Lab

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.”

In the end, it was the greater availability of Wallops that saw Rocket Lab opt to pick the home of the Antares rocket as their new home on the US East Coast.

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.

“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.

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