Rocket Lab kicks off 2024 with “Four of a Kind” satellite mission

by Tobias Corbett

Rocket Lab launched its first launch of 2024, with the Electron launch vehicle lofting four Space Situational Awareness (SSA) satellites into low-Earth orbit from the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand. Named “Four of a Kind,” Electron is lifted off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-1B in Māhia at 7:34 PM NZDT on Jan. 31 (06:34 UTC).

In addition to delivering the four SSA satellites, Rocket Lab used this mission for a maritime recovery of Electron’s first stage, marking the first booster recovery from Rocket Lab since the “We Love The Nightlife” mission in August of last year.

Electron’s payload

The mission payload consisted of four 16U cubesats to be placed into orbit on behalf of Rocket Lab’s customer, Spire Global Inc., who built the spacecraft and will operate them for their own customer, NorthStar Earth and Space.

While Spire’s own constellation of Low Earth Multi-Role Receiver (LEMUR) satellites are built mainly for monitoring Earth-based activity, the spacecraft built for NorthStar will populate a constellation dedicated to tracking other space-based activity from space.

The satellites will monitor all near-Earth orbits in order to provide an enhanced level of situational awareness to the global satellite community. According to Spire, the LEMUR spacecraft operated on behalf of NorthStar will provide “timely and precise information for space object detection, tracking, orbit determination, collision avoidance, navigation, and proximity alerts.”

NorthStar’s constellation is scheduled to eventually consist of 12 satellites, with eight more set to launch in blocks of four via two Electron launches later this year.

Electron’s launch

Final preparations for launch began on Jan. 15, when Rocket Lab integrated the four-spacecraft payload with Electron, followed by a successful dress rehearsal ahead of the originally scheduled launch the next day.

The countdown officially began at T-7 hours, with the formal countdown initialization. The launch vehicle then was raised into a vertical position at T-4 hours, followed shortly afterward by the loading of propellant, where the Electron’s fuel tanks were primed for launch with RP-1 rocket propellant.

Two hours later, Electron was loaded with liquid oxygen, providing oxidization to Electron’s engines and allowing for the combustion that propels the rocket and its payload into space.

At T-15 minutes, the launch team assess the weather conditions and Electron’s readiness to fly with a go/no-go poll. With Electron cleared for flight, the final major milestone ahead of ignition was at T-2 minutes, when the launch auto-sequence begins.

Ignition occurred at T-2 seconds, with Electron’s nine Rutherford first stage engines providing 190 kilonewtons of thrust to the rocket. After T0, the nine first stage engines continued to burn for two minutes and 25 seconds, after which main engine cut-off occurred.

Seconds later, Electron’s second and first stages separated, followed by the ignition of the second stage’s single vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine at T+2 minutes and 31 seconds.

The first stage then makes its parachute-assisted return to Earth, with splashdown predicted to occur somewhere around T+18 minutes. The first stage is recovered via ship and taken to Rocket Lab’s production facility in Auckland, New Zealand. There, it will be assessed for damage and possible refurbishment as Rocket Lab works towards its goal of first-stage reuse.

Graphic showing the mission timeline for Four of a Kind. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

While the first stage continues its descent towards Earth, Electron’s second stage continued burning until T+9 minutes and 20 seconds, following which Electron’s kick stage, powered by a single Curie engine, separated and began the final stage of the flight.

The kickstage places the payload onto its intended 560-kilometer circular orbit, inclined at 97 degrees, followed by payload separation at approximately T+1 hour and 17 minutes, bringing the mission to an end and Rocket Lab’s 2024 to a start.

(Lead image: A reusable Electron first stage, denoted by its red interstage, being prepared for launch. Credit: Rocket Lab)

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