In its first nighttime launch, the Rocket Lab electron propeller arrived in orbit on Sunday from New Zealand with a trio of small military payload in the US. UU., Which demonstrates the ability of the private development rocket to help meet the growing demand for small launches from the Air Force.
The 55-foot (17-meter), two-stage Electron rocket ignited nine Rutherford main engines at 0600 GMT (2 am EDT) on Sunday and fired from the Rocket Lab commercial launch base on the North Island. New Zealand.
The satellite transported three small satellites, from a box of tissues to a small refrigerator, for the US Air Force. UU And the Missile and Space Defense Command of the US Army. UU The Space Testing Program, a unit based at the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico that provides access to space for military experiments, managed the launch of multiple satellites with Rocket Lab.
Sunday's mission was the first by Rocket Lab for the United States Air Force.
Heading east over the Pacific Ocean shortly after sunset in New Zealand, the electron launcher composed entirely of black carbon switched off its first-stage engines about two and a half minutes into the flight, and discarded the impeller to fall Sea .
A single Rutherford engine went on in the second stage of the Electron to place the three small mission payloads in a preliminary transfer orbit nine minutes into the flight. The upper stage Curie of the rocket separated a few seconds later, setting a burn of almost three minutes from T + plus 49 minutes to place the three payloads of the mission in a 500 mile (500 kilometer) orbit with a tilt of 40 degrees to the equator.
Rocket Lab's live video broadcast ended before the circularization of Curie's orbit kick stage was burned, but Peter Beck, the founder and CEO of the company, confirmed the successful maneuver and deployment of the three payload satellites. of the satellite in a tweet.
"A perfect flight, complete mission success, all the payloads deployed!" Beck tweeted.
Rocket Lab intended to launch the mission on Saturday, but officials delayed the launch to perform additional payload checks. The total weight of the mission's payload, around 400 pounds (180 kilograms), made it the heaviest launch by Rocket Lab to date.
The largest of the satellites launched on Sunday is called Harbinger.
Built by York Space Systems in Denver, the Harbinger mission is sponsored by the United States Army and the Missile Defense Command. The approximately 330-pound (150-kilogram) spacecraft hold several technological demonstration payloads, including a synthetic aperture radar for Earth observation throughout the year and a high-speed data communications link to transmit the images of radar to land users.
The radar imaging instrument of the Harbinger satellite comes from ICEYE, a Finnish company that has built and launched its own commercial radar observation smallsats. The radar image payload in Harbinger "provides commercial access to timely and reliable Earth observation data and is capable of capturing images from anywhere on Earth at regular intervals, day or night, regardless of the coverage of the Earth. clouds, "according to the Army's fact sheet on the mission.
A high-speed laser communications terminal in Harbinger from BridgeSat will lower the radar images, demonstrating a fast data collection capability that could be used by tactical military forces on the battlefield.
Harbinger joined the launch of Electron with two demonstrations of CubeSats technology called SPARC-1 and Falcon ODE.
The CubeSat-1 study by Space Plug and Play Architecture – roughly the size of a briefcase – is a Swedish-American military research nanosatellite.
SPARC-1 will test miniaturized avionics, a software-defined radio system and a visible camera. The sponsor of the mission in the United States is the Air Force Research Laboratory, which developed the mission in collaboration with the Swedish Defense Material Administration.
The six-unit CubeSat main contractor was ÅAC Microtecs, a Swedish smallsat manufacturer.
The smallest payload launched on Sunday was the Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment, a CubeSat from a unit slightly larger than the Rubik's cube. The Falcon ODE spacecraft, developed at the US Air Force Academy The US will launch two orbital stainless steel ball bearings, which will become calibration targets for ground-based space surveillance radars.
The Air Force reserved Sunday's mission with Rocket Lab, designated STP-27RD by the Space Testing Program, in 2017 under the Army's Quick-Aid Initiative, or RALI, program.
The STP-27RD mission was the first of the RALI program, which obtained launch services from commercial suppliers to offer military satellites a faster trip to orbit.
Air Force officials said last month that five RALI launches were planned before the end of 2019, including the STP-27RD mission with the electron launcher Rocket Lab and a flight in Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne vehicle later in the year. . The five missions, including Sunday's launch of the STP-27RD, will provide access to space for 21 research and development satellites, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Anderson, head of the Department of Defense's Space Testing Program branch.
The RALI missions will "put DoD experiments into orbit and demonstrate new launch vehicles for new commercial suppliers," Anderson told reporters in a conference call last month.
The launch on Sunday marked the sixth flight of the Rocket Lab Electron rocket since 2017, and the second this year. Rocket Lab, based in the United States and factories in Southern California and Auckland, New Zealand, aims to launch approximately one mission per month until the remainder of 2019, increasing to a rate of two weeks by the end of the year.
Rocket Lab charges less than $ 7 million for its launches, and Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne, which has not yet flown and will be launched from an airline plane, sells for approximately $ 12 million per flight.
Both price points are a fraction of the cost of a larger rocket launch. Smalls that travel in larger propellers usually fly as second-clbad payloads, with orbits and schedules driven by the needs of a higher priority spacecraft on the same flight.
"We are seeing a lot of money for these small risk clbad launch service providers," said Colonel Bernard Brining, director of the Space Testing Program. "We see value for the space test program. As a director, I can get many (more) payloads in orbit at a very low cost. "
Numerous companies, some say, more than 100, are developing small-clbad lightweight satellite launchers, but Rocket Lab is the first of a new generation of commercial firms to launch a new orbital clbad rocket.
The wave of new private start-up companies has left many in the industry wondering how many will survive the challenges of fundraising, technical development and a constantly evolving market.
"I think the market is still shaking here, and we're trying to participate in it," said Colonel Robert Bongiovi, director of the Systems Management for Launch Firms at the Missile and Space Systems Center of the Air Force. "And if the market will support many (companies), we're backing contracts for many because … that's going to be very useful so we can bring our national security payload into space in the small launch clbad."
So far, most small military satellites have been experimental. In the future, small spacecraft could play more critical roles in the communications, navigation and surveillance fleets of the US military.
"While many of the small satellites we have launched to date have been research and development satellites, this will change in the future," Bongiovi said.
"What we would really like to see … is the ability to start using them not only for experimental launches, which we will continue to do, but also for more operational prototypes and, eventually, operating systems," Bongiovi said. "I think there's absolutely a lot to say (about) these smaller launch vehicles about their ability to provide some of the resistance that we all feel we're going to need."
Send an email to the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.