Rocket Lab unveils the photon smallsat bus

COLORADO SPRINGS: After establishing a foothold in the small launch vehicle market, Rocket Lab now plans to enter the small satellite field with a bus that the company says can make customers orbit faster.

At the 35th space symposium here, Rocket Lab unveiled Photon, a small game based on the kick stage that the company uses on its electronic rocket. The company is offering Photon as part of an end-to-end service that includes an Electron launch and the option to manage spacecraft operations.

In an interview, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck presented Photon as a platform that allows customers to integrate a variety of payloads, from Earth observation cameras to communications equipment, and put them into orbit in less as long as the companies built their own satellites.

"We see many companies, especially in the NewSpace sector, that are building their satellites for the first time," he said. "They are trying to provide a data service, but they have to go through all the learning to develop their own satellite, instead of going directly to revenue."

Beck argued that Rocket Lab's integrated approach will be more efficient and less risky for startups. "Not only can you use a proven launch vehicle, but also a proven spacecraft platform, so it is not taking any development time or risk to put your idea into orbit," he said.

The company believes that Photon is particularly suited for technology demonstration missions, where customers bring a payload they want to get in space quickly before using it in a larger constellation. Rocket Lab could also provide the payload in addition to the bus. "If you only have an idea and do not want to develop a payload, either through Rocket Lab or Rocket Lab, we can also take care of that," he said.

The Photon spacecraft has not yet flown, but it is based on the kick stage that has flown successfully on four of Electron's first five launches. Beck said that the company planned from the beginning to convert the launching stage into a satellite bus. "If you can build a launch vehicle," he said, "you certainly have all the experience and equipment necessary to build a spacecraft."

Rocket Lab will manufacture the Photon at its factory in Huntington Beach, California, where it also produces the Rutherford engine that powers Electron. The company estimates that it can produce and launch a photon in just four months.

Beck did not give a specific figure of how many satellites the factory can produce, but said it is "strongly linked" to Electron's production rate, which the company is working to accelerate a rocket a week. The company has reserved approximately half of the space at the Huntington Beach facility for satellite production.

Each photon can carry up to 170 kilograms of payloads. Beck said the company plans to launch only one photon at a time, but that each photon could carry multiple payloads. The first Photon will not be launched before 2020 because the company's 2019 launch manifesto is complete.

Rocket Lab is working with "several clients" interested in using Photon, but Beck said the company is not yet ready to announce any of them. Nor was he concerned that Photon could dissuade companies that develop their own satellites from launching them to the Electrons.

"We do not want people to use Photon," Beck said. "It's just an addition to our product line to make it easier for people to put things in orbit."

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