Delayed since last Saturday, due to poor forecasted weather along the Virginia Coast, Rocket Lab successfully executed its second Electron mission from U.S. soil late Thursday evening, lofting a pair of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites on behalf of San Francisco, Calif.-based geospatial imagery provider Capella Space. The two-stage Electron booster—on a flight whose dual payloads earned it the moniker “Stronger Together”—took flight from Launch Complex (LC)-2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., at 6:38 p.m. EDT.
After a busy, nine-launch 2022 from its pair of operational launch pads on the southern tip of the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island, Rocket Lab kicked off 2023 in fine style with its first mission from U.S. soil on 24 January. Aboard the Electron for the aptly named “Virginia Is For Launch Lovers” flight were a trio of small imaging satellites developed by Hawkeye 360.
But even as the dust settled from that spectacular maiden outing—a mission which had found itself delayed for more than two years and was eventually remanifested with an entirely different payload—Rocket Lab announced its intent to loft a second flight “just weeks after”. Late last month, further meat was added to the bones when it was revealed that two missions, “within only days of each other”, would be attempted: one from MARS, carrying Capella Space’s payload, and another from Mahia, laden with a pair of BlackSky Earth-imaging satellites for Spaceflight, Inc.
Heading into what it called “our favorite type of March Madness”, Rocket Lab completed a successful Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) of the Electron a couple weeks ago, before confirming a two-hour “window”, opening at 6 p.m. EST on Saturday 11th. Last week, the Capella Space satellites were encapsulated inside the 59-foot-tall (18-meter) rocket’s payload fairing and the Launch Readiness Review (LRR) last Friday concluded with a “Go” to proceed into Saturday’s opening launch attempt.
However, Mother Nature proved a tough mistress to tame. “Its chilly and the wind is picking up as launch prep continues,” tweeted Rocket Lab as the opening of the two-hour launch window neared.
“Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) is keeping a close eye on upper-level winds over the range,” it was added. “With a weather balloon in air now, the teams expects to have current wind-level readings soon.”
Sadly, though, as had already befallen Relativity Space’s maiden Terran-1 launch (albeit for a different reason) a few hours earlier, Saturday proved not to be a good day to fly. “We are standing down from today’s launch attempt,” Rocket Lab announced late in the window, “due to strong upper-level winds.”
Heading into Monday, a revised two-hour window, extending from 6 p.m. through 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday was announced, although the weather again remained the driving concern. “To avoid high winds at the pad,” Rocket Lab tweeted, it would slide its next launch attempt to the same time period Thursday.
Rocket Lab launched its first mission for Capella Space back in August 2020, when an Electron lofted a 220-pound-class (100-kilogram) microsatellite from Mahia into a circular orbit some 310 miles (500 kilometers) high. The microsatellite was intended to deliver publicly available Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data from a mid-inclination orbit.
It is powered by technology capable of detecting changes in Earth’s surface smaller than 1.6 feet (0.5 meters). And it will furnish geospatial insights across areas ranging from security to agriculture and from infrastructure monitoring to disaster relief.
Just last month, Rocket Lab inked a deal with Capella Space for four future Electron missions, commencing in the second half of 2023, to deliver four next-generation Acadia radar-imaging satellites. According to Capella Space’s founder and CEO Payam Banazadeh, the addition of these new satellites to its existing fleet will “further enhance our market-leading capabilities of high-frequency, best-quality SAR imagery with the fastest order-to-delivery speeds of any commercial SAR provider”.
Current plans are for the four Acadia launches—flying one satellite per mission—to fly from Mahia, with all expected to be completed before the close of 2023. However, Rocket Lab noted that it has “provided Capella Space with the flexibility to move any of the missions” over to Virginia “as the mission campaigns progress, in order to meet optimum customer and mission requirements”. Rocket Lab is also furnishing Capella Space with two of its Motorized Lightband separation systems to release the satellites from Electron upon reaching orbit.
With a powerful crackle from its Electron’s nine Rutherford liquid-fueled engines, the second Electron mission of the year took flight at 6:39 p.m. EDT Thursday and the two-stage booster took flight under a combined thrust of 50,400 pounds (22,800 kilograms). The first stage was discarded as planned at three minutes into flight, followed by the payload fairing and a smooth “burn” 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 to lift the Capella Space twins the rest of the way uphill.
A busy plate of other missions lies ahead, in addition to the four flights already penciled-in for Capella Space’s Acadia network. All told, if all missions run as manifested, Rocket Lab might end 2023 by almost doubling the nine launches it scored last year.
Two pairs of NASA-funded CubeSats will ride two Electrons, no earlier than May, for the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS), also from LC-2 at Wallops. Launch services contracts for the mission were awarded to Rocket Lab by NASA as recently as 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”—to afford reliable predictions of their possible escalation to Categories Four or Five.
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).
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.
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 deep-space trek 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.