Rocket Lab announces NRO mission as agency diversifies launch providers

by Ian Atkinson

Rocket Lab has announced its first mission of 2020 – a dedicated launch for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Their workhorse Electron rocket, launching from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, will loft the classified NROL-151 satellite to an unknown orbit. The mission was awarded by the NRO as part of their Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) program, with the goal of increasing the amount of small-lift launch providers they can choose from.

NROL-151 launch:

This mission will be Rocket Lab’s first launch for the NRO. The mission was nicknamed “Birds of a Feather”, likely referencing the Kiwi and Eagle, the national birds of the two involved countries.

Due to the classified nature of this launch, very few details have been made public. NROL-151’s purpose, orbit, size, and other specifications are unknown.

NROL-151 has a 14-day launch window, stretching from January 31 to February 13. Each day will have a four-hour window, from 0:00-4:00 UTC (7:00PM-11:00PM EST). Electron will launch from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 (LC-1), located on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

Similar to the previous launch, Rocket Lab will perform post-mission testing on Electron’s first stage. The last flight debuted a “block upgrade” to the first stage – featuring control thrusters, advanced sensors, and data recording equipment. Rocket Lab will not attempt to recover the stage on this mission – as no parachutes are installed – but will gather more data about the entry environment.

The first stage features an advanced data recorder, nicknamed “Brutus”. Brutus is designed to withstand the breakup and high-speed splashdown of the stage. Crews will recover Brutus from the sea following splashdown.

Rendering of Electron’s first stage re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab intends to recover the first stages in the future. The stages will be equipped with parafoils to slow their descent. At first, they will splashdown in the ocean to be recovered – but Rocket Lab hopes to later shift to catching the stages mid-air with a helicopter.

Stages that land in the water will require a more thorough refurbishment. Saltwater can corrode and damage parts of the rocket, which is why Rocket Lab intends to catch the stage without ever exposing it to saltwater. This change will dramatically simplify the refurbishment process.

An Electron booster returns under chute – envisioned by Mack Crawford for NSF/L2

First stage recovery and reuse will help Rocket Lab in its goal of achieving a rapid launch cadence. With a growing manifest, their factories will eventually become the bottleneck in stage availability. Reusing stages will allow them to achieve a high launch frequency while keeping a modest production rate.

This launch marks a major step in the NRO’s adoption of dedicated smallsat launches. The agency has previously tested numerous CubeSats – small satellites that are designed in 10cm x 10cm x 10cm increments – on past launches. In September 2012, seven NRO-sponsored CubeSats were launched as secondary payloads on the NROL-36 mission.

When the RASR program was first announced, the NRO stated that the smallsats will not exceed a mass of 150kg, and will be launched to an orbit of approximately 500km.

Looking forward, Rocket Lab has a very exciting year ahead. In the second quarter of 2020, they anticipate launching the first Electron rocket from Launch Complex 2 (LC-2), located at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. LC-2 was built throughout 2019, specifically designed for United States government launches to Low Earth Orbit.

The first flight from LC-2 – a mission named STP-27RM – will launch the Monolith satellite for the Air Force. Monolith will conduct research on new space weather payload designs and how small satellites can be used for weather monitoring.

Rocket Lab will also be opening a third launch pad, named Launch Complex-1B (LC-1B). LC-1B is currently under construction adjacent to the existing LC-1 launch pad. It will allow Rocket Lab to reach a higher launch frequency from their New Zealand spaceport, and process two missions at once.

Following this launch, Rocket Lab’s next mission will likely be ELaNa 32, carrying the ANDESITE CubeSat for Boston University. The mission is scheduled to launch no earlier than March 1 from LC-1.

Related Articles