Rocket Lab has launched its 50th Electron mission

by Sawyer Rosenstein

Rocket Lab successfully launched its 50th Electron rocket June 20 at 2:13 PM EDT (18:13 UTC). Launching from LC-1B on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand, the mission included five satellites set to improve Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity.

The launch window extended for 14 days beginning on June 18 with an instantaneous window happening at the same time for each of those days.

During its first 49 flights, Electron has launched 185 satellites. There are more than 1,700 satellites in orbit utilizing Rocket Lab technology.

This launch comes just two weeks after the most recent Electron mission, “PREFIRE and Ice,” which launched from the same pad to complete a pair of back-to-back launches for NASA. It marks the eighth flight of Electron in 2024, with the possibility of launching an additional dozen times this year.

This mission, nicknamed “No Time Toulouse,” has launched a set of five satellites for Kinéis. It is the first of five Electron launches for Kinéis to deploy its new 25 satellite IoT constellation. The company is backed by public investors including France’s space agency Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and Collecte Localisation Satellites (CLS), an international space-based solutions provider which is meant to improve global IoT technology.

IoT devices include smart objects and internet-connected home devices like cameras and video doorbells, wearables like smart watches, as well as industrial machinery such as environmental monitoring of farming conditions.

The company claims that once its satellite network is complete, devices that are compatible with the network will allow users to connect to objects and read sensor-collected data anywhere in the world through the in-space relays. This is coupled with 15 ground stations as of June 2024.

Each satellite has a volume of 16U, where 1U is a 10cm cube, and a mass of only 28 kg (61 pounds). This compact size required the development of a small, deployable antenna structure consisting of a foldable UHF antenna to which a rigid S-band antenna is attached. The antennas were co-designed by Cobham Aerospace Communications and Comat and produced by Comat, a Toulouse-based company.

UHF Kinéis antennas in production at Comat. (Credit: Kinéis)

Some future satellites in the constellation will also include an Automatic Identification System (AIS) payload that uses six monopole antennas. AIS is an anti-collision system that enables ships and maritime traffic surveillance systems to know a vessel’s identity, status, position and route in a dense shipping or fishing zone.

Some of the satellites include a propulsion system using a field-emission electric propulsion (FEEP) thruster, powered by the two solar panels.

This mission utilized the standard Electron configuration with a kick stage attached. The first stage features nine Rutherford sea level engines, each producing 21 kN, or 4,800 pounds-force (lbf), of thrust at liftoff and peaking at 25 kN (5,600 lbf). The second stage includes a Rutherford vacuum engine with 25.8 kN (5,800 lbf) of thrust. Both variants of Rutherford are powered by electric pumps as opposed to the traditional gas turbines.

Using an unspecified bi-propellant fuel, the Curie engine on the kick stage helped to deliver the group of satellites into the planned 635-km circular orbit, inclined 98 degrees.

The planned trajectory and event times for the “No Time Toulouse” mission. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Fully loaded with Rocket Propellant 1 (RP-1), a refined form of kerosene, and liquid oxygen (LOX), Electron ignited its engines at T-2 seconds followed by liftoff. The first stage burned until T+2:34 when main engine cutoff (MECO) occurs, followed four seconds later by stage separation, with stage two ignition happening three seconds later. The fairing remained attached until T+3:07.

Given the use of electric turbopumps, a second battery must be used mid-flight. During a procedure known as a battery hot-swap, unique to Electron, the second battery began working moments before the first battery is depleted. This happened at T+6:19. That previously used battery was then jettisoned.

Second stage flight continued until nine minutes into the mission when it cut off its engine followed by separation of the kick stage a few seconds later.

The five satellites along with the kick stage coasted until T+52:05 when the Curie engine ignited for its first burn totaling two minutes 40 seconds. A final one minute six second burn at T+1:03:57 left the five satellites in the correct altitude and inclination for deployment two and a half minutes later.

Not all of the previous 49 launches have gone smoothly. The company has seen four mission failures, including its first launch and most recently the “We Will Never Desert You” mission in September 2023, where an electrical arc led to a short in the power system used for motor controls. The fact it happened near the vacuum of space worsened the failure as a result of “Paschen’s law,” which CEO Sir Peter Beck discussed with NSF shortly after the accident.

However, they have had plenty of success. The vehicle is the first to use an entirely carbon-fiber body, the first to use electric turbopumps, and according to Rocket Lab is the fastest commercially developed rocket in history to reach 50 launches, taking seven years and 25 days, just barely beating the record previously set by SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

This launch marked the 46th from its facility on the Māhia Peninsula, consisting of two launch pads, LC-1A and LC-1B. The company, headquartered in Long Beach, California and operates under an FAA license, has launched four missions from the United States. Those missions took off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Wallops Island, Virginia, where the company operates LC-2.

A chart showing the years since a vehicle first flew until the time it reached 50 flights. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

After this flight, the company’s Rutherford engines will have flown 499 times, including sea level and vacuum. Despite each mission having ten such engines, one engine was flown again in 2023.

Rocket Lab has also worked on making its first stages reusable. The company originally tested capturing the booster out of mid-air using a helicopter dangling a hook meant to catch the parachute line. Those attempts ended with a successful capture followed shortly after by the need to disconnect the booster for the safety of those onboard the helicopter.

Rocket Lab has now switched to landing the boosters in the ocean, with a chase boat pulling alongside and scooping the stage out of the water shortly after splashdown. The most recent of those boosters was recovered following the “Four of a Kind” launch on Jan. 31, 2024.

The company recently announced a record launch agreement with Synspective for ten dedicated flights aboard Electron. The largest in Rocket Lab’s history, this deal will see the deployment of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensor-equipped satellites for the Japan-based company. Rocket Lab has already previously launched the company’s StriX constellation.


(Lead image: Electron launching on Rocket Lab’s 50th flight, the “No Time Toulouse” mission. Credit: Max Evans)

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