Spaceflight Insider

Rocket Lab aiming to launch mission for DARPA

An Electron rocket stands at Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

An Electron rocket stands at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab has made steady progress increasing its presence and one of the first flights on its 2019 launch manifest is a 330-pound (150 kilogram) satellite for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The mission carries a moniker that sounds like it’s the descendant of a famous character from the Star Wars movie franchise as its payload is DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration — R3D2.

Rocket Lab hopes to send the technology-demonstration mission into orbit as soon as late February. As has been the case with Rocket Lab’s four previous Electron launches, the R3D2 mission is planned to lift off from Launch Complex 1 located on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

“Rapid acquisition of small satellite launch capabilities is increasingly important to U.S. government organizations like DARPA,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck in a news release. “The ability to rapidly space-qualify new technology and deploy space-based assets with confidence on short notice is a service that didn’t exist for dedicated small satellites until now. We’re honored to provide Electron’s agile and flexible launch service to DARPA and we look forward to delivering the innovative R3D2 payload to orbit.”

Rocket Lab has said it plans to carry out monthly flights in 2019 using its two-stage Electron rocket to launch various CubeSats throughout the course of 2019.

Electron’s role on this mission is to deliver R3D2 to space so it can validate the design of a new reflect array antenna. DARPA hopes this prototype will improve space-based communications. This antenna isn’t exactly armor plated — it consists of Kapton. The material was developed in the 1950s by DuPont and is extremely thin.

Before deployment, the antenna will be tightly-packed but once it reaches low-Earth orbit and is ready to get down to business it should fold out to an impressive 7 feet (about 2 meters). 

As is the case with so much of space efforts, the impetus behind this test is money. It costs a lot to loft spacecraft and their support systems (estimates place this as being as high as $10,000 per pound). 

The plan is to send R3D2 into a circular orbit by Electron’s kick stage

“Until now many small satellite operators have had to compromise on optimal orbits in order to reach space at an accessible cost,” Beck said. “The kick stage releases small satellites from the constricting parameters of primary payload orbits and enables them to full reach their potential, including faster deployment of small satellite constellations and better positioning for Earth imaging.”




Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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