6th Electron rocket launched from New Zealand
“That’s a Funny Looking Cactus.” In fact, it’s no cactus at all, rather an Electron rocket sending payloads into orbit for the U.S. Air Force.
Rocket Lab’s sixth Electron rocket mission was nicknamed “That’s a Funny Looking Cactus” because the customer, the U.S. military’s Space Test Program, is based in New Mexico, which “has a lot of cacti around.”
“We pictured what it would be like to see Electron in that setting, and what do you know, it’s a funny looking cactus,” said Max Muncy, a member of Rocket Lab’s launch operations team, during the company’s mission webcast.
Liftoff occurred at 6 p.m. New Zealand Time (2 a.m. EDT / 6:00 GMT) May 5, 2019, from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Aboard it were three satellites for the U.S. military totaling 400 pounds (180 kilograms).
“It’s a testament to our team and mission partners that Electron has placed another three satellites in orbit, just weeks after our flawless mission for DARPA,” Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a company statement. “We’re proud to have delivered 100% mission success for the launch procured by the Department of Defense’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, proving once again Rocket Lab’s ability to provide responsive and streamlined space access.”
The three satellites of the U.S. military’s STP-27RD mission were the first to fly atop an Electron launch vehicle for the U.S. Air Force. According to Rocket Lab, they were the Space Plug and Play Architecture Research CubeSat-1 (SPARC-1) mission, which is a Swedish-U.S. experiment to explore avionics miniaturization; the Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment (Falcon ODE), which is designed to evaluate ground-based tracking of space objects; and Harbinger, an experimental commercial system designed to meet Department of Defense space capability requirements.
The mission, which was the first night launch of an Electron rocket, was delayed 24 hours from its initial May 4 target date to allow Rocket Lab to “conduct additional payload checks.”
Once ready, the 55-foot (17-meter) tall Electron was raised to the vertical position several hours before launch. At liftoff, using nine Rutherford engines, which consume liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene, ignited to begin lifting the vehicle into orbit.
After firing for 2 minutes, 31 seconds, the first stage engines cut off as planned before the first stage separated from the second stage 3 seconds later.
Three seconds after that, the lone vacuum Rutherford engine on the second stage ignited and continued propelling the three-satellite payload toward orbit.
Having risen high enough out of Earth’s lower atmosphere, the payload fairing separated, revealing the spacecraft inside.
The second stage continued to burn until a mission-elapsed-time of about 8 minutes, 55 seconds before cutting off. Four seconds later, the Kick Stage and the three satellites separated before beginning a 40 minute coast phase.
About 49 minutes after leaving New Zealand, the Kick Stage ignited its Curie powered engine for just under three minutes to finalize its orbit at 310 miles (500 kilometers) inclined 40 degrees from the equator. The three satellites separated a few minutes later some 54 minutes after liftoff.
This was the second Electron launch of 2019 and the sixth overall since the vehicle began flying in 2017. Since then, a total of 28 satellites have been orbited by the rocket. The company hopes to be able to scale to a launch every two weeks by the end of 2019.
Video courtesy of Rocket Lab
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity.