Rocket Lab has conducted its first launch from the second launch pad at its spaceport in Mahia, New Zealand on Tuesday, in the second of four planned missions for the Japanese earth observation company Synspective.
Tuesday’s mission, The Owl’s Night Continues, is a follow-on to the December 2020 launch named The Owl’s Night Begins, which was also flown for Synspective. The flight lifted off as scheduled at 09:37 local time (20:37 UTC; 3:37pm EST on Monday) from the newly-finished Launch Complex 1B (LC-1B) launch pad, which started construction in late 2019.
The payload for The Owl’s Night Continues is Synspective’s StriX-β Earth observation satellite, equipped with an X-band synthetic aperture radar. It is the second demonstrator craft built by the company.
The 100-kilogram spacecraft’s radar antenna is 5 meters long when deployed, and it is capable of imaging a 30-kilometer swath at 3-meter resolution in strip-mapping mode or a 10-kilometer swath at 1-meter resolution in sliding spotlight mode.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket will deploy StriX-β into a sun-synchronous orbit inclined 97 degrees to the Equator, at an altitude of 561 kilometers.
This is the first of two satellites Rocket Lab is planning to launch this year for Synspective, with another launch also scheduled for 2023.
Unlike optical imaging satellites, spacecraft equipped with synthetic aperture radar can observe Earth even through clouds and in darkness. Synspective plans to create a constellation of operational spacecraft to perform these observations while orbiting the Earth.
StriX-β and the upcoming StriX-1 commercial prototype satellite, which is scheduled to launch later this year, will serve as precursors to this constellation.
StriX-β is one of a number of Earth observation satellites that have launched recently to carry out radar mapping missions, as demand grows for near real-time imaging of disaster areas along with agriculture, forestry, sea-level monitoring, and other uses. For Synspective, one use case is to observe Asian cities at the same time every day after the first six satellites are launched.
From sun-synchronous orbit, the StriX-β spacecraft will be able to observe the same spots on Earth at the same time every day, which will enable users to track any changes and trends at specific locations. The satellite can cover the Earth’s surface, from pole to pole.
The StriX-α and StriX-β demonstrators are the precursors to Synspective’s operational satellites. The company hopes to have six satellites in orbit by the end of this year, on the way to building a full constellation of 30 spacecraft. The target date for completion of the constellation is not known at this time.
Synspective’s constellation is expected to allow wide-area, high-frequency observations of the Earth. Between Synspective’s constellation and others like COSMO-SkyMed, China’s Ludi Tance, and others, radar observations will become increasingly available for most spots on Earth, under multiple radar bands.
Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle consists of two stages, with an optional kick stage to help insert satellites into precise orbits. It is designed to launch up to 200 kilograms to sun-synchronous orbit or 300 kilograms to other low Earth orbits.
The Electron’s first stage is equipped with nine Rutherford engines, using RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen as its fuel and oxidizer. The engines are 3D printed, with battery-powered electric pumps to deliver fuel to the combustion chamber. Rocket Lab is working towards making Electron’s first stage reusable.
The Electron that launched StriX-β into orbit had a red band painted on it, which meant it was equipped with recovery hardware. The recovery systems were tested as part of the development process; however, Rocket Lab did not attempt to recover the rocket’s first stage on this flight.
The first stage powers Electron through the early phases of flight. Two and a half minutes after launch, the first stage engines shut down, the stage separates, and the second stage ignites its engine.
Tuesday’s mission will use a larger payload fairing, optimized for Synspective satellites, which separated around the 184-second mark in the flight. The battery hot-swap, which saw the second stage transition from and then jettison depleted batteries, occurred around the 388-second mark.
The second stage is equipped with a single vacuum optimized Rutherford engine, with a larger nozzle to make it more efficient at altitudes where the Earth’s atmosphere is thin or negligible. Like the first stage, this stage is also fueled by RP-1 and liquid oxygen.
Around 535 seconds after liftoff, Electron’s second stage engine cut off, with the vehicle in an initial parking orbit. The kick stage then deployed the StriX-β satellite into its proper sun-synchronous orbit. The stage will then deorbit a short time later to keep it from becoming space junk.
New Launch Pad
The Owl’s Night Continues was the first mission that Rocket Lab flew from its second launch pad.
What's better than one Electron on the pad? How about two? With Pad B at Launch Complex 1 now up and running, we're bringing you the full virtual tour of our spaceport in all its glory. pic.twitter.com/ypHE0FCZck
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) February 23, 2022
This new infrastructure will double the number of missions that can be conducted from the company’s Mahia launch facility, allowing a maximum of 120 launch opportunities per year. Alongside the new LC-1B at Mahia, the LC-2 facility at Wallops Island, Virginia — in the United States — has also been built, giving Rocket Lab three launch pads on two continents thousands of kilometers apart.
Although the world’s first private launch facility now has two pads and increased capacity, it remains to be seen whether the crowded small satellite launcher market can support the full flight cadence that Rocket Lab wants. So far, Rocket Lab has flown 23 Electron vehicles, 20 successfully, over nearly five years. Its highest flight rate was seven launches in 2020.
The Owl’s Night Continues was the first mission of 2022 for Rocket Lab. This is Rocket Lab’s first full year as a publicly-traded company, and its focus has changed from strictly launch services to offering end-to-end services for customers — including building satellites.
This has been reflected by the recent acquisitions the company has made, and the pivot is no doubt due to changes and competition in the small-satellite launch market which has seen competition from many sources including SpaceX’s rideshare missions, which offer lower costs for its customers.
As another example of change in Rocket Lab’s focus, a new corporate logo was recently introduced that eliminated the rocket and replaced it with a stylized “R.” Rocket Lab has also begun the development of a reusable medium-lift launcher, Neutron, which is also planned to be rated to fly crewed missions. Such missions had previously been ruled out by Rocket Lab founder, Peter Beck.
As Rocket Lab adapts to a changing and more competitive launch market, the company faces an important year in which eight missions are currently planned, including the CAPSTONE lunar mission in late spring and at least two flights for the US National Reconnaissance Office. A booster recovery by helicopter is also planned, and it is possible that the first reused booster could also fly this year, though that remains to be seen.
Starting with The Owl’s Night Continues, continued mission successes and development will be critical for Rocket Lab and its future as the small launch market continues to evolve, with the possibility of a shakeout in the sector in the near future.
(Lead image: Electron lifts off to begin Tuesday’s launch. Credit: Rocket Lab)