The prominent launcher of dedicated small satellite launches, Rocket Lab, looks to achieve SpaceX-like rapid launch capability of its Electron rocket. The company is targeting its shortest turn around time between missions from the same launch pad. Just three weeks ago, Rocket Lab returned to operational launch status following the easement of Covid-19 restrictions at the company’s Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand. The Electron rocket completed its twelfth mission nicknamed “Don’t Stop Me Now” which supported a rideshare payload of five smallsats to orbit. Now, Rocket Lab is ready for its third mission of 2020 – the second in just three weeks – with Electron’s thirteenth mission “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen.”
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) June 15, 2020
Rideshare mission of space cameras
The “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” mission features a rideshare manifest consisting of seven small satellite payloads for customers Planet, In-Space Missions, and rideshare and mission manager Spaceflight Inc.’s customer Canon Electronics. The majority of payloads are Earth-imaging satellites inspiring the “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” mission nickname. The primary payload, Canon Electronics Inc.’s CE-SAT-IB microsatellite, will demonstrate the company’s high definition and wide-angle Earth-imaging capabilities and will serve as a testbed for future opportunities of mass production. Also aboard Electron is five of Planet’s latest generation SuperDove (Flock4e) Earth-observation satellites equipped with new sensors to produce higher quality images of Earth’s landmass on a near-daily basis. The UK enterprise In Space Missions provides the final payload with its maiden Faraday-1 6U CubeSat. According to In Space Missions, Faraday-1 is “the first in a series of satellites that will provide a turnkey service for commercial customers and research organizations wanting to access to space at a competitive and affordable cost.” Currently, In Space Missions has four more satellites under contract with the Faraday service.
Rocket Lab’s carbon composite Electron booster propelled by nine 3D-printed Rutherford sea-level engines capable of 36,000lbf (162kN) of thrust will send all payloads to a 500km sun-synchronous low Earth orbit at an inclination of 97.5 degrees.
It's almost time to go to space! Today's mission will see seven small sats launched to a 500 km circular orbit for @SpaceflightInc customer @Canon, as well as small sat operators @planetlabs and @Heads_InSpace. pic.twitter.com/mMKENVBeLa
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) July 4, 2020
Rapid launch capability within reach
According to Rocket Lab, a new Electron booster is produced in-house approximately every eighteen days at its production facility in Auckland, New Zeland. While Electron currently only launches from Launch Complex 1 on New Zeland’s Mahia Peninsula, Rocket Lab looks to further open small satellite access to orbit and expand its launching capabilities with two more operational launch complexes targeted to begin service later this year. The Mahia Peninsula location has recently undergone expansion, adding the neighboring Launch Complex 1B while a third launch location, Launch Complex 2, has been opened at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia.
Lots of launch pads, we got ‘em. Electron is on the pad at LC-1A this week with a front row view of construction progress on LC-1B. pic.twitter.com/ijZAVRc6yV
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) July 1, 2020
Rocket Lab Founder and CEO, Peter Beck, states that multiple launch locations “enables our small sat operators to do more, spend less, and get to orbit faster” and that “Rocket Lab has eliminated the small sat waiting room for orbit. We’ve focused heavily on shoring up our rapid launch capability in recent years and we’re proud to be putting that into practice for the small sat community with launches just days apart.”
The rocket backlog. pic.twitter.com/AhHlbNvEmq
— Peter Beck (@Peter_J_Beck) May 15, 2020
With an expansive backlog of Electron boosters, Rutherford engines, and the capability to soon launch missions back-to-back from neighboring launchpads Rocket Lab aims to break into the market of rapid launch capability joining the likes of SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket which has launched 91 times (89 times successfully) since 2010. The company also looks to break into the booster recovery market also pioneered by SpaceX.
Earlier this year, Rocket Lab completed a successful mid-air recovery demonstration of a parachute equipped test article with a helicopter and a specially designed grappling hook. Beck recently revealed on Twitter that Rocket Lab is targeting the seventeenth flight of the Electron to debut fully operational recovery efforts of the first stage booster to occur at some point before year’s end.
The “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” mission previously scheduled for July 3rd, moved to July 5th, then pushed up to July 4th is now targeting liftoff NET 21:19 UTC/5:19 pm EDT from LC-1 in New Zealand taking advantage of more favorable launch weather conditions. Rocket Lab has stated on Twitter, however, that there is a “relatively high chance” of the launch attempt scrubbing to a later date as the possibility of high ground winds still persists. Should they be needed, backup launch opportunities extend through July 16th.
The “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” Electron and payload are currently vertical at LC-1 ahead of the launch attempt. A Livestream of the effort will be made available approximately fifteen minutes ahead of liftoff posted to the company’s social media accounts and available on the company’s website: www.rocketlabusa.com/live-stream.