Finally ‘business time’ for Rocket Lab with 7 payloads launched
Rocket Lab sent its third Electron rocket into orbit on the company’s first fully-commercial mission. Called “It’s Business Time,” the flight successfully took to the skies from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.
Liftoff took place at 4:50 p.m. New Zealand time Nov. 11 (10:50 p.m. EST Nov. 10 / 03:50 GMT Nov. 11), 2018, which was about 50 minutes into the 4-hour launch window. About 2.5 minutes into the flight, the first stage separated successfully and the second stage ignited properly to bring the satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO).
About 3 minutes into the flight, the carbon-composite payload fairing separated correctly. The vehicle reached orbit about 9 minutes after liftoff. The payloads were brought to a 186-mile (300-kilometer) by 310-mile (500-kilometer) parking orbit at 85 degrees. Some 40 minutes later, the orbit was circularized to a 310-mile (500-kilometer) by 310-mile (500-kilometer) orbit using Rocket Lab’s apogee kick stage, powered by the company’s 3D-printed liquid-propellant-powered Curie engine.
The kick stage is capable of 120 newtons of thrust and can perform multiple burns to take payloads into different circularized orbits. According to Rocket Lab, it “opens up significantly more orbital options, particularly for ride-share customers that have traditionally been limited to the primary payload’s designated orbit.”
The first stage of the Electron rocket is powered by nine of the company’s Rutherford engines, and the second stage uses a variant of the same engine that is optimized for the vacuum of space. Nearly all of the components of the Electron are made in-house, and the company uses additive manufacturing for all of the engine’s primary components, making it possible to build an entire engine in three days.
Liquid oxygen and RP-1, or highly refined kerosene, fuel each Rutherford. The engine’s carbon-composite tanks were specially designed to be compatible with the liquid oxygen. The turbopump uses brushless DC motors and high-performance lithium polymer batteries instead of gas turbines, so the design is simpler thermodynamically and is possible to modify via software.
This mission was originally scheduled to launch between April 20 and May 3 of 2018. However, the pad team discovered anomalous behavior in the motor controller during a wet dress rehearsal, so the company chose to move the launch window in order to have more time to review the data and address it as necessary.
The next 14-day launch window opened on June 23, 2018, and was supposed to stay open until July 6, but during pre-launch checks on June 27, similar issues with the motor controller appeared, and again the company decided to stand down from the launch window to review the data and attempt to correct the problem.
A Host of Payloads
“It’s Business Time” put a total of seven payloads in orbit, including a GeoOptics Inc. satellite, built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, and two Lemur-2 satellites from Spire Global, who also launched with Rocket Lab on its “Still Testing” flight in January this year.
Every Lemur satellite is essentially the same, with ship tracking and weather monitoring technology, but these new Lemurs also add an antenna and sensor for tracking aircraft. It’s especially important for areas of the world where the current tracking ability is limited.
“The loss of flight MH370 showed the airline industry the holes in the system,” Nick Allain, the director of brand development for Spire, told SpaceFlight Insider. “Planes do not necessarily follow the flight plan exactly. Flight tracking is very poor in that region of the globe (where MH370 was lost). A new service called Airspace allows Spire to track planes. It is similar to and a direct competitor for Areon. The airline industry does not like having only one option for a service given the need for cost cutting.”
For Spire to get where they want to be, an additional 50 satellites are needed. They can manufacture about two per week, all out of its Glasgow office.
“You end up with a range of people wanting the service,” Allain said. “Some are conservative who want to see data first. Then there are people who are banging down the door to get access to the service. Spire sees more of the latter than the former.”
There are also variations between subsequent Lemur-2 satellites because technology advances between flights, and Spire updates the satellite design accordingly.
“Lifespans for each spacecraft are a maximum of five years,” Allain said. “In reality, the spacecraft are replaced every two to three years. Technology advances so fast. Spire has seen a 5x to 10x performance increase with each new spacecraft iteration. This has been achieved by using a combination of on-orbit software upgrades and new hardware for new satellites.”
The company had specific reasons for choosing Rocket Lab.
“Think of total available launches as a pie,” Allain said. “Are they going by LEO? If not, then the slice you want gets smaller. Will they take a commercial satellite? The slice gets smaller still. Is the flight within the budget? With each question asked, you end up with fewer launch opportunities. More launch opportunities are always better, especially with commercial CubeSats. Rocket Labs is dedicated for commercial small satellites, and that is big. You take launches where you can get them.”
Other companies seem to agree. In the interim between the first and second planned launch windows, new customers joined the manifest for this launch. One is Irvine01, the pilot mission for the Irvine CubeSat Program, a STEM educational program that includes members from six public high schools in Irvine, California.
“Aboard Irvine01 is a low-resolution camera that will take pictures of Venus, stars and other celestial objects,” says Rocket Lab’s website. “Data from these images can be used to calculate distances to stars and determine pointing accuracy and stability of the satellite. Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems is the payload integrator for Irvine01 and worked closely with Rocket Lab USA to identify this opportunity for a rapid flight certification process.”
The second new payload is NABEO, a drag sail technology demonstrator designed and built by High Performance Space Structure Systems GmBH (HPS GmbH).
“The NABEO drag sail is a system created to passively de-orbit inactive small satellites,” according to Rocket Lab’s website. “The small sail is an ultra-thin membrane that can be coiled up tightly within a spacecraft and then deployed once the satellite reaches the end of its orbital lifespan. The reflective panels unfold to 2.5 square meters to increase the spacecraft’s surface area, causing it to experience greater drag and pull the satellite back into the Earth’s atmosphere, enabling much faster de-orbiting and reducing the amount of space junk in Low Earth Orbit.”
Finally, only weeks before launch, Fleet Space Technologies joined the manifest with two CubeSats. The Australia-based “internet of things” (IoT) startup will use the two Fleet-built Proxima satellites as the beginning of a constellation designed to provide internet connectivity for millions of devices across the globe.
“We decided to build and launch two more satellites over the past few months and Rocket Lab has moved at the speed of light to incorporate them in this mission, assist us with licensing and complete integration in record time,” said Fleet’s chief executive and founder, Flavia Tata Nardini. “We will be in space less than a few months after making the decision to join the mission. This rapid turnaround time is what the space industry really needs now.”
Peter Beck of New Zealand founded Rocket Lab in 2006, and the company has remained focused on the small-satellite market, making frequent launches a priority. The goal is to make space accessible. With “It’s Business Time,” according to the company, Rocket Lab has made the fastest transition of any private launch provider so far from just having a test program to launching fully commercial flights.
“Rocket Lab’s responsive space model is crucial to support the exponential growth of the small satellite market. That a customer can come to us seeking a ride to orbit and we can have them booked to launch in weeks is unheard of in the launch business,” said Rocket Lab founder, CEO, and CTO Peter Beck. “Small satellites are playing an increasingly important role in providing crucial services that benefit millions of people on Earth. Frequent access to orbit is the key to unlocking the potential for these satellites, and Rocket Lab is the only small launch provider currently enabling this access.”
The Electron’s first test flight, called “It’s a Test,” took place on May 25, 2017. The rocket successfully made it to space, but did not achieve orbit. Due to a data loss time-out, the flight was terminated early. Rocket Lab attributed the issue to a problem with a third-party contractor’s telemetry equipment.
The second test flight, “Still Testing,” occurred on Jan. 21, 2018, and achieved orbit as expected after weeks of scrubs. That flight brought three commercial satellites into orbit, as well as the controversial “Humanity Star”, a shiny satellite designed to draw spectators’ attention up toward the stars and create a shared experience for humanity, though it deorbited about seven months earlier than planned.
Video courtesy of Rocket Lab
Rae Botsford End is a freelance writer and editor whose primary work currently is writing technical white papers, contributing to SFI, and working on a speculative fiction novel that she hopes to have published soon. Rae wanted an opportunity to report on the various space-related events in and around Florida's Space Coast and approached SFI's founder about the possibility. Rae now covers an array of subjects for our growing website.