Rocket Lab launches pair of Capella satellites from Wallops

by Tyler Gray

Rocket Lab, which opened its 2023 campaign with the inauguration of its first US-based launch pad, has launched its second consecutive mission from Launch Complex 2 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Liftoff of the “Stronger Together” mission occurred 38 minutes into the two-hour window, with T0 at 6:38 PM EDT (22:38 UTC) on Thursday, March 16.

This mission utilized Rocket Lab’s workhorse launch vehicle: the two-stage Electron rocket. Thursday’s launch went into the books as the 34th total Electron flight, and the rocket’s second flight so far in 2023.

In recent years, Rocket Lab has tried recovering the first stage of Electron to meet increasing launch demand and reduce turnaround times between flights. These efforts included two attempts at a mid-air catch of the booster in 2022 using a helicopter, both of which came close to success but ultimately failed.

Render of an Electron first stage descending under parachute. (Credit: Mack Crawford for NSF/L2)

As of late, however, the California-based company is weighing its options in terms of first stage reuse, as indicated by CEO Peter Beck in a Feb. 28 earnings call with investors.

This could include a shift to ocean recovery using only marine assets, as was used during initial Electron retrieval tests before the eventual catch attempts took place. The next booster recovery operation, which will take place during the upcoming “The Beat Goes On” mission from New Zealand, will see Electron fitted with additional waterproofing for ocean landings.

Per Beck, the data gained from marine recovery during this upcoming flight will help Rocket Lab to determine a proper route towards facilitating a reliable and rapid means of reuse for Electron, whilst keeping costs to a minimum.

Ultimately, there was no planned attempt at a first stage retrieval during the launch from Wallops, as Electron flew in a fully expendable configuration.

The payload for the “Stronger Together” mission consisted of two spacecraft from Capella Space, a company headquartered in San Francisco, California that specializes in building satellites used for Earth observation and imaging.

The two satellites – named Capella 9 and 10 – have masses of 100 kilograms each, and launched together as part of a dedicated mission to a 600-kilometer circular orbit inclined at 44 degrees.

Both spacecraft were developed under the Whitney subclass of satellites owned and operated by Capella Space. In addition, the duo is outfitted with high-quality, high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) systems intended to capture clear images of the Earth’s surface during day and night and in any weather conditions.

With this latest launch, Capella expands its existing satellite constellation as a response to increased customer demand for SAR data. The “Stronger Together” mission is the company’s second flight on Rocket Lab’s Electron, having previously enjoyed the successful launch of its Sequoia spacecraft during “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical” in August 2020.

In February, Rocket Lab and Capella Space announced that they had secured a multi-launch deal that will see four more dedicated Electron flights from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, each with a single Acadia satellite as the payload. These next-generation satellites will have a mass of around 150 to 170 kilograms and will be deployed into mid-inclination, 600-kilometer orbits.

The first launch under this new agreement is currently scheduled for no earlier than the second half of 2023. Each of these Capella Space missions, including “Stronger Together,” feature Motorized Lightband separation systems that are produced in-house by Rocket Lab, in line with the company’s vertical integration strategy.

Launch preparations for Thursday’s mission began with a successful wet dress rehearsal (WDR) test on the pad at Launch Complex 2. During this test, the Electron rocket’s propellant tanks were filled to flight levels, and mission controllers simulated a typical countdown to ensure that all vehicle systems were operating as expected.

Following the completion of the WDR, Electron was rolled back to its hangar for payload integration and fairing encapsulation before heading out once again to the launch pad.

The countdown to liftoff officially began at T-4 hours, at which point Electron was raised vertical. Loading of RP-1 fuel into both stages commenced shortly afterward, with liquid oxygen loading starting at the T-2 hour mark.

Approximately 18 minutes before launch, Rocket Lab’s launch director conducted a go/no-go poll of the launch team and verified that all systems, including those onboard the rocket and payload, were ready for flight. The launch team is in control of the countdown up until T-2 minutes, at which point Electron’s onboard computers take over and begin the launch sequence.

Electron takes flight from Launch Complex 2 during the “Virginia Is For Launch Lovers” mission. (Credit: Rocket Lab/Brady Kenniston)

The nine Rutherford engines on the first stage ignited at T-2 seconds, with liftoff occurring at T0 following a final automated status check by the flight computers.

Shortly after clearing the pad, Electron began pitching downrange over the Atlantic Ocean. At approximately one minute and 11 seconds into the flight, the vehicle passed through the region of maximum dynamic pressure – also known as max-q – where aerodynamic stresses on the rocket are at their greatest.

Electron’s nine first-stage engines burned until the T+2:25 mark when they shut down simultaneously in an event known as main engine cutoff (MECO). Stage separation took place three seconds later, with the vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine igniting at T+2 minutes and 31 seconds into flight.

Electron’s protective payload fairing was jettisoned shortly after stage separation and second-stage engine startup, exposing the Capella 9 and 10 satellites to space for the first time.

As the Rutherford vacuum engine continues its burn, the externally-mounted batteries that power the motor’s electric turbopumps begin to deplete their power, eventually becoming excess mass once fully drained. Once this happens, these empty batteries are jettisoned, and a separate battery system starts up in order to maintain a steady power supply to the turbopumps. This process is known as “battery hot-swapping,” and took place around six minutes into the flight.

Shortly after achieving orbit, second engine cutoff – the shutdown of the Rutherford vacuum engine – took place at the T+9:10 mark. The Curie-powered kick stage with the Capella satellite duo separated from the second stage approximately four seconds later.

Following a nearly hour-long coast phase, the 120N Curie engine fired at T+53 minutes 52 seconds in order to perform a three-minute and 36-second burn, which placed the payload into its final deployment orbit. Spacecraft separation took place shortly after Curie engine shutdown.

While Rocket Lab has focused its launch operations on its US pad as of late, preparations for the next flight from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand have been ongoing. The aforementioned “The Beat Goes On” mission, which will feature the first dedicated marine recovery of an Electron booster, is currently also set to launch in March with two satellites for BlackSky.

Aside from their launch business, Rocket Lab has been hard at work in their space systems department, developing hardware such as satellite buses and solar panels to support upcoming missions.

For example, NASA’s ESCAPADE mission to Mars will utilize two upgraded Photon spacecraft, designed to study the planet’s magnetosphere. The Photon bus will also be used for Varda Space’s first manufacturing satellite and reentry vehicle, which is due to launch no earlier than June of this year on the SpaceX Transporter-8 mission.

Rocket Lab is also continuing the development of hardware and facilities for their next-generation, medium-lift Neutron launch vehicle. The company has announced the completion of the first vehicle production building at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, and the start of production of the first Neutron tank structures. Construction of the launch pad, just south of LC-2, is also underway.

(Lead image: Electron lifts off from Launch Complex 2 on the “Stronger Together” mission. Credit: NASA)

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