The Owl’s Night Begins: Japan’s StriX-α satellite launches with Rocket Lab

by Tobias Corbett & Chris Gebhardt

Rocket Lab has launched the 17th flight of their small satellite launcher vehicle, Electron, on a mission named “The Owl’s Night Begins” after the only payload onboard: StriX-α.

Liftoff occurred at 10:09 UTC (05:09 EST; 23:09 local time) on 15 December 2020 from Launch Complex 1A on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand.

The launch followed an announcement on 11 December that qualification of Rocket Lab’s self-designed and built Photon spacecraft that will carry the small NASA CAPSTONE mission to the Moon in 2021 was underway.

The Owl’s Night Begins

The 17th flight of Electron also marked the 7th and final flight for Rocket Lab of 2020.

The year saw six successful missions and one, Flight 13: “Pics or It Didn’t Happen,” failure.  That issue was quickly identified and corrected, with Rocket Lab receiving authorization from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to resume flights just 27 days after the failure.

Despite launching from New Zealand, Rocket Lab is a U.S.-based company and must operate under the FAA’s commercial space jurisdiction.

Since returning to flight, the company has completed three successful missions — with Flight 17 originally slated to be the first to debut recovery of the Electron’s first stage.  However, Rocket Lab surprised the industry in November by advancing that milestone to Flight 16, which was then given the name “Return To Sender.”

The Owl’s Night Begins mission patch. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Ironically, despite being scheduled as the first flight to debut reuse, Flight 17 did not perform a recovery of the first stage as flight data and first stage inspections continue from the previous flight.

Nevertheless, the mission carried a very different but arguably equally important upgrade to the Electron rocket in the form of a second, larger payload fairing.

Announced in August 2020, the larger fairing option is 1.8 m in diameter while the primary fairing for Electron is 1.2 m in diameter.  The move to provide two fairing options to customers came from customer needs and requests for additional payload volume.

The larger fairings are not a standard offering from Rocket Lab and can only be flown on flights with mission integration periods (the amount of time between the signing of a launch contract and the target launch date) greater than 12 months.

One of those customers is Synspective, a Japan-based company seeking to provide orbital solutions to time and labor intensive ground-based observations.

To accomplish that goal, the company plans to deploy a fleet of at least 30 small Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites as part of the StriX constellation.

Strix is the genus name for owls, a creature renowned for its eyesight.

Likewise, the StriX SAR satellites will be able to see through any and all weather conditions that would otherwise obscure the ground from optical cameras and other types of scanning instruments.

For this mission, Synspective flew a single satellite called StriX-α.  The single-passenger mission was rare for Electron, which usually flies multiple small satellites on the same mission.

The satellite was originally contracted to launch on an Arianespace Vega rocket from South America but was moved to Electron in the second half of 2019 after Vega suffered a failure during the Falcon Eye 1 launch.

StriX-α and its sister satellite StriX-β, which is planned for launch next year, will serve as demonstration satellites to test technologies to be used on the forthcoming operational constellation.

Development of the specific SAR technology used on the satellites began as a Japanese government program called ImPACT (Impulsing Paradigm Change through disruptive Technologies program).

This led to Synspective’s development of the technology for commercial use, creating their Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR). 

InSAR is the primary application that will be tested on StriX-α as it is crucial to the goal of useful, millimeter-level resolution of surface object movement.

If successful, the overall constellation will be able to provide governments as well as public and private companies with daily updates on the state of infrastructure, natural disasters, farming, etc., all without the need to deploy survey crews and equipment to potentially dangerous locations.

A StriX satellite in stowed, launch configuration; unfolding; and fully unfolded (top); an artist’s representation of a StriX satellite in orbit (bottom). (Credit: Synspective)

Likewise, the data could help streamline urban and rural planning by offering cost-saving alternatives to on-site surveys in some cases.

While the operational satellites are planned to be 100 kg in mass, StriX-α is 150 kg.

Together with StriX-β, StriX-α will form the 1st generation of the StriX constellation.  They will be joined by four operational satellites to form the 2nd Generation with a total of six satellites.

This will allow for daily passes of one satellite over the same location each day.

The 3rd Generation will realize 30 satellites.

Into next year: Photon and NASA’s CAPSTONE mission

Late last week, Rocket Lab announced another major milestone as their Photon spacecraft began its qualification program ahead of its role in taking the NASA CAPSTONE CubeSat mission to Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit.

CAPSTONE is an acronym, standing for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment.  The satellite will investigate the region of space around the Moon that the NASA-led Gateway and other orbiting outposts will operate in and test out the never-before-used Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit  (NRHO) of the Moon.

The Photon trans-lunar injection stage for NASA’s CAPSTONE mission to Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit around the Moon. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

The Photon will serve as the trans-lunar injection, or TLI, stage, propelling the CAPSTONE CubeSat out of Earth orbit.  If successful, CAPSTONE will become the first craft to use a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit, and Photon will become the first rocket stage to send any object outward from Earth toward that orbit.

The rigorous test campaign now underway on Photon is one of the final development milestones before flight.  During the tests, Photon will be exposed to the sounds and vibrations Electron will impart to it during launch — ensuring it will not be adversely affected by the rocket. 

The stage will also be exposed to the vacuum and the temperature swings it will experience in space.

These are standard pre-launch tests for all payload and rocket stages.

The mission is set to launch between April and June 2021.

(Lead image: The Electron rocket for “The Owl’s Night Begins” mission on LC-1A undergoing a Wet Dress Rehearsal. Credit: Rocket Lab)

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