The Virginia Coast really was for “Launch Lovers” on Tuesday night, as Rocket Lab kicked off its first Electron mission of 2023—and its first flight from U.S. soil—at precisely 6 p.m. EST from Launch Complex (LC)-2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va. Aboard the two-stage booster for its 33rd flight were a trio of satellites launching into a 340-mile-high (550-kilometer) orbit, inclined 40.5 degrees, on behalf of Herndon, Va.-headquartered geospatial imaging firm HawkEye 360.
But Tuesday night’s flight carried special significance for Rocket Lab, roaring away for the first time from U.S. soil. All previous Electron missions from its bittersweet maiden outing in May 2017 to the vehicle’s most recent previous flight, last November, originated from the Southern Hemisphere, at either Launch Complex (LC)-1A or 1B on the southernmost tip of the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island.
“100% mission success,” tweeted Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck, extending congratulations to the Rocket Lab, NASA-Wallops and HawkEye 360 teams. “Looks like everything works in the northern hemisphere also.”
With dreams of a Mainland U.S. presence having long beckoned, in October 2018 Rocket Lab confirmed its intent to build a new facility at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) in Virginia, with an expectation that its addition to a growing launch site portfolio would eventually permit monthly orbital missions and “an extra layer of flexibility” in support of U.S. Government and commercial entities. Construction began in February 2019 with the pouring of nearly 38,000 cubic feet (1,000 cubic meters) of concrete and by the following September the 148,000-pound (67,000-kilogram) launch platform was in place.
Next came the 44-foot-tall (13-meter) “strongback”, whose principal role would be to raise, support and provide utilities to the Electron vehicle. In December 2019, LC-2 was officially opened and late the following year Rocket Lab’s Integration and Control Facility (ICF) was completed, bringing a state-of-the-art launch control center, payload integration factory and vehicle integration area capable of supporting multiple Electrons fully online.
Rocket Lab announced that the new facility’s maiden launch, originally targeted for the second quarter of 2020, would conduct a Space Test Program mission, identified as STP-27RM. Its principal payload, Monolith, sought to demonstrate a deployable sensor, in which the mass of the sensor is a substantial fraction of the total spacecraft mass, thereby changing its dynamic properties and testing its ability to maintain adequate attitude control.
In April 2020, an Electron was rolled out to LC-2 for the first time. By this point, the launch had slipped into the year’s third quarter at the soonest.
In addition to the worldwide march of COVID-19 in 2020 and beyond, a key “long pole” remained NASA certification of the Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS), a Global Positioning System (GPS)-aided, computer-controlled system to terminate a mission in the event of an anomaly. Unlike most previous systems, it is designed to be wholly autonomous, eliminating the need for a dedicated Range Safety Officer (RSO) to monitor all ascent parameters.
“AFTS is crucial to increasing launch frequency and providing responsive launch capability, while maintaining the highest industry safety standards,” noted Rocket Lab. “It reduces the turnaround time between missions and provides greater schedule control by eliminating reliance on ground assets and human flight termination operators.”
As 2020’s spring wore into summer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted Rocket Lab a five-year Launch Operator License for LC-2. This allowed for multiple Electron launches from Wallops and eliminated the need to obtain individual licenses for each mission.
Preparations for the maiden mission continued unabated. And in September 2020, an Electron was rolled out to LC-2, fueled with liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) and put through a full Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR), including integrated countdown operations.
But no target “launch window” could be set until NASA had conducted final development and certification of the AFTS software. As a consequence, the Monolith payload originally slated for Rocket Lab’s first flight out of LC-2 was shifted to LC-1A at Mahia and launched successfully in July 2021.
By Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck’s own admission, as noted by Space News in the fall of 2020, the AFTS certification process proved significantly longer and far more complex than anticipated. As circumstances transpired, it would take over two years to get LC-2 ready to go.
At length, the Electron rocket for tonight’s mission was delivered to MARS last October, tracking an opening launch attempt No Earlier Than (NET) 6-8 p.m. EST on 7 December and lasting through the 20th. “It’s great to see the pad and launch facility burst into life,” tweeted Mr. Beck, “after such a long wait.”
Aptly named “Virginia is for Launch Lovers”, the vehicle sailed through its pre-launch WDR in the third week of November. But on the month’s last day, T-0 moved to 9 December, “to allow for final pre-launch preparations,” Rocket Lab tweeted.
That date, too, met with some doubt as December crept into its second week and rain threatened the Virginia Coast. An incoming weather front with strong upper-level winds and unsettled conditions prompted a postponement firstly to the 13th, then the 15th in response to “range/airspace availability” and a need to complete FAA safety documentation.
Continuing unfavorable weather pushed T-0 back to 16 December, then again to the 18th. But despite an initially favorable weather outlook that day, upper-level winds flowing at 33 mph (54 km/h) ultimately spelled the end of the launch attempt.
Strong upper-level winds caused RocketLab to forego a final try on 19 December and teams were stood down to assess “remaining opportunities” in late December, pending holiday airspace restrictions over the Christmas period. “We’ll be back,” Rocket Lab tweeted, “when the weather plays ball.”
Finally, on 11 January, Rocket Lab announced that it was tracking a new launch attempt on the 23rd. Last weekend, it was announced that the weather was expected to be around 85-percent favorable, with a chance that high surface winds could prevent a launch during the two-hour window.
But on Sunday, another 24-hour slippage to NET 24 January was called, owing to a deteriorating weather picture at Wallops, with rain and strong winds close to the launch pad. Weather on Tuesday predicted to be 90-percent acceptable.
With Monolith long since having been launched, the payload aboard Tuesday’s mission was a trio of small satellites flying on behalf of Herndon, Va.-headquartered geospatial imaging firm Hawkeye 360. Last April, Rocket Lab was selected by HawkEye 360 for three LC-2 launches and a total of 15 satellites: the first carrying three satellites and the second and third—provisionally scheduled to occur by 2024—laden with six apiece.
“The multi-launch contract with HawkEye 360 will see Rocket Lab deliver 15 satellites (five clusters) to low-Earth orbit across three Electron missions anticipated between late 2022 and 2024,” it noted. “RocketLab will first deploy three HawkEye 360 satellites as part of a rideshare mission, followed by six satellites each on two dedicated Electron launches.”
HawkEye 360 CEO John Serafini explained that LC-2 afforded “optimal orbital flexibility” for this latest cluster of satellites, which will enter an inclined orbit in order to boost “revisit” capability at mid-latitudes. “Once Cluster 6 is commissioned,” the company reported late last fall, “HawkEye 360 will be able to collect Radio Frequency (RF) data as frequently as every hour, anywhere in the world.”
Previous satellite clusters, the most recent of which launched last May, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster as part of the 59-payload Transporter-5 rideshare, have combined RF emissions data with analytical tools and algorithms to provide geospatial insights to combat illegal fishing and poaching in National Parks, monitor GPS RF interference along international borders and identify emergency beacons in crisis areas.
With a powerful crackle from the Electron’s nine Rutherford liquid-fueled engines, the first Rocket Lab mission from U.S. soil took flight at precisely 6 p.m. EST Tuesday, as the two-stage booster powered aloft under a combined thrust of 50,400 pounds (22,800 kilograms). “In thrust we trust,” tweeted Mr. Beck.
The first stage was discarded as planned at 2.5 minutes into flight. This was followed by the jettison of the payload fairing and a smooth “burn” lasting a little shy of seven full minutes by the single Rutherford engine of the second stage.
With those two stages gone, the turn came of the third “Kick Stage”. Its single Curie powerplant—previously described by Rocket Lab as “our small but mighty, 3D-printed engine”—roared to life for less than 70 seconds to lift the HawkEye 360 triplets the rest of the way uphill, before the payload was deployed at 57 minutes after liftoff.
But with the dust and noise having barely settled, the second LC-2 Electron launch is waiting in the wings. Late last summer, Rocket Lab announced its intent to loft a second payload “for a confidential commercial customer”—now known to be a pair of small Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging satellites for San Francisco, Calif.-based Capella Space—“just weeks after” the debut flight.
A busy plate of other missions lies ahead for 2023. Two pairs of NASA-funded 3U CubeSats will ride a pair of Electrons, no earlier than 1 May, for the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission.
Launch will also occur from LC-2 at Wallops. Launch services contracts for the mission were awarded to Rocket Lab by NASA last November, with an expectation that both pairs of satellites would be inserted into a pair of low-Earth orbital “planes”, at an altitude of 370 miles (600 kilometers), within a 60-day period.
Each TROPICS CubeSat measures 3.9 x 3.9 x 14.2 inches (10 x 10 x 36 centimeters), and weighs a mere 11.8 pounds (5.3 kilograms). Two earlier TROPICS satellites were lost during an Astra launch failure in June 2022, but the four heading uphill later this spring will enable NASA to provide observations of the formation and evolution of tropical cyclones during the 2023 Atlantic Hurricane Season.
Equipped with powerful scanning microwave radiometers to measure temperatures, humidities, precipitation and cloud properties, TROPICS will permit rapidly updated observations of the intensity and evolution of storm systems. Data from the satellites will enable scientists to understand dynamic processes ongoing in the storms’ eyewalls—the towering clouds, wind and rain encircling the “eye”—in order to furnish reliable predictions of their possible escalation to Category Four or Five.
“This year, we once again witnessed the devastating effects of hurricanes and tropical storms on lives and livelihoods, underscoring the importance of improved climate data from space to enable scientists and researchers to accurately predict storm strength and give people time to evacuate and make plans,” Mr. Beck said after last November’s TROPICS contract award. “The TROPICS satellites need a responsive and reliable path to orbit to equip people with near-real-time, actionable weather data.”
Added to Rocket Lab’s list, a full manifest of Electron flights are targeted out of Mahia in 2023. Later this spring, a rideshare mission will include NASA’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3), launch contracts for which were awarded in October 2021.
Flying aboard a 12U-class CubeSat, ACS3 seeks to evaluate a composite solar sail, made from four aluminized Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) quadrants. Following a 25-minute deployment process in space, ACS3 will span 30 feet (9 meters) along each of its four sides and cover a total area of 860 square feet (80 square meters) when fully unfurled.
Developed under the leadership of NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC) in Hampton, Va., and Ames Research Center (ARC) in Moffett Field, Calif., ACS3’s composite booms are reportedly 75 percent lighter than earlier metallic ones. They are also expected to experience a hundred times less in-space thermal distortion than previous concepts.
Also heading uphill from New Zealand in 2023 are five “batches”—25 satellites total, each weighing around 66 pounds (30 kilograms)—of Internet of Things (IoT) satellites for the French-led global connectivity provider, Kinéis. In September 2021, Rocket Lab announced that it would deploy Kinéis’ entire constellation at an orbital altitude of 400 miles (650 kilometers).
That same month, another contract was signed with Japan’s Astroscale to launch the Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) satellite, part of a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) effort to demonstrate the capability to remove large-scale debris from low-Earth orbit. After deployment from the Electron, ADRAS-J will rendezvous with a long-abandoned rocket upper stage, trialing proximity operations and acquiring imagery of the target and its local debris environment, before attempting to deorbit it.
Additional launches out of Mahia this year include the McNair CubeSat for Akash Systems, Inc. It aims to demonstrate a gallium-nitride-on-diamond parabolic transmitter from Sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 310 miles (500 kilometers).
Another Electron will deliver a StriX satellite—the third and final StriX to be launched by Rocket Lab—for the Japanese Earth imaging firm Synspective. These satellites are part of an eventual network of 30 SAR satellites to collate daily data on metropolitan centers in support of urban planning, construction, infrastructure monitoring and disaster response.
A particularly notable addition to Rocket Lab’s 2023 manifest is the Venus Life Finder, financed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which aims to deliver a 50-pound (22.6-kilogram) probe on a five-month-long journey of 38 million miles (60 million kilometers) to plunge into the Venusian clouds. Described by MIT as part of “a suite of scrappy, privately-funded missions set to hunt for signs of life among the ultra-acidic atmosphere of the second planet from the Sun”, the Life Finder will employ a laser sensor to investigate signs of complex chemistry as it descends through the haze.