DeepSpace: Rocket Lab nails third Electron launch of 2019 as next rocket heads to launch pad

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket lifts off from Mahia Peninsula on June 29th for the company's third launch of 2019. (Rocket Lab)

Welcome to the latest edition of DeepSpace! Each week, I’ll hand-craft this newsletter to give you a breakdown of what’s happening in the space industry and tell you what you need to know. 

On June 29th, startup Rocket Lab completed its third successful Electron rocket launch this year, placing roughly half a dozen small(ish) satellites in orbit as part of a dedicated mission for Seattle-based startup Spaceflight Industries.

Technically speaking, with three launches under its belt, Rocket Lab has now reached orbit more times this year than the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V and Delta IV rockets combined, despite the fact that the company conducted its first commercial launch just seven months ago. In other words, Rocket Lab is finding its stride with Electron at an unprecedented speed and may be able to complete its tenth successful orbital launch less than two years after the company first reached orbit (January 2018). June 29th’s launch is just the latest in a string of impressive successes for Rocket Lab and the company doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.

Electron Flight 7: “Make It Rain”

  • A tongue-in-cheek reference to the stereotype that it rains constantly in Seattle, home of launch contractor Spaceflight Industries, Electron Flight 7 was a commercial rideshare mission that included six publicly manifested satellites and at least one classified payload.
    • Altogether, the payload mass was reported by Rocket Lab to be roughly 80 kg (175 lb). Aside from marking the orbital debut of Australia’s Melbourne Space Program, Flight 7’s main passenger – manifested via SpaceX – was BlackSky’s ~56 kg (125 lb), dishwasher-sized Global 3 satellite, the third of its kind to reach orbit.
    • BlackSky’s ultimate goal is to build a full constellation of at least 60 Global satellites, each capable of delivering >1000 images with an impressive resolution of ~1m/pixel. The first four (including Global 3) were actually built by Spaceflight itself, but the 60-satellite constellation is to be produced at LeoStella’s recently-inaugurated Seattle factory and replaced every few years.

Attached above black, rectangular cubesat dispensers is BlackSky’s minifridge-sized Global 3 satellite (top), encapsulated inside Electron’s carbon fiber fairing soon after (left). Electron lifted off (right) on June 28th (June 29th local time) and was greeted by a spectacular sunset-lit view of its launch site, located on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. (Rocket Lab)

  • It can be all but guaranteed that BlackSky (or LeoStella) will return to Rocket Lab for future Global satellite launch contracts, perhaps flying 2-3 spacecraft at a time to expedite constellation completion and lower the overall cost of getting it into orbit.
  • Carrying a price tag of roughly $6M, Electron is capable of placing 150 kg (330 lb) into a 500 km (310 mi) sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). 3 Global satellites would likely push Electron to its limits, while 2 would leave plenty of space for additional copassenger spacecraft and thus opportunities to lower the overall cost to BlackSky.
  • Some 50 minutes after lifting off from New Zealand, Electron’s third stage – a “kick stage” powered by a custom-built Curie engine – ignited and burned for about 45 seconds, circularizing its orbit. A few minutes later, all 6-7+ spacecraft were successfully deployed, leaving the kick stage to once again lower its orbit to facilitate a quick and controlled reentry, minimizing space debris.

Onto the next one

  • Pictured at the bottom of the gallery above, Rocket Lab – much like SpaceX – completed a full static fire test of Flight 8’s Electron upper stage, the last major test milestone standing in the way of Electron’s next launch. Located in Auckland, NZ, the upper stage will now be shipped around 300 mi (500 km) south to Rocket Lab’s Mahia Peninsula-based Launch Complex 1 (LC-1).
  • According to Rocket Lab’s website, Electron Flight 8 is scheduled no earlier than (NET) August 2019, although the company’s Flight 7 webcast host indicated that it could happen as early as July.
    • Either way, it appears that Rocket Lab is well on its way to achieving a bimonthly average launch cadence this year.
    • The company’s goal is to reach a monthly launch cadence by the end of the year, roughly halving its current 2019 average of ~50 days between launches.
  • Ultimately, Rocket Lab’s future continues to look brighter month by month. As the only commercial smallsat launch operator currently serving customers, the company is essentially early to the party and has the market cornered by simply being first. Every launch will provide experience and get the company closer to profitability and even greater launch cadences, perhaps as high as 2-3x per month by the end of 2020.
Thanks for being a Teslarati ReaderBecome a member today to receive an issue of DeepSpace in your inbox every Tuesday.

– Eric

DeepSpace: Rocket Lab nails third Electron launch of 2019 as next rocket heads to launch pad
To Top