Rocket Lab is planning back-to-back missions for the holiday seasonAugust 6, 2018
US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab is rescheduling its first commercial rocket launch once again. The company tried to get this flight off the ground twice this year, but weird behavior on Rocket Lab’s launch vehicle forced the company to stand down from both launch attempts. Now, changes have been made to the rocket to avoid this problem, and the company says it’s ready to try again later this November.
In fact, the company hopes to do two back-to-back missions just weeks apart before the end of 2018. The first commercial flight, dubbed It’s Business Time, will be followed by one for NASA in December. The two missions will take off from Rocket Lab’s private launch facility in New Zealand, called Launch Complex 1. And if both flights go up as planned, it will be the fastest turnaround yet for Rocket Lab, which has only conducted two test flights so far, which were about eight months apart.
Rocket Lab’s primary vehicle is the Electron, a 55-foot-high rocket that can carry payloads weighing between 330 and 500 pounds to low Earth orbit. It’s a small range compared to the capabilities of other major launch providers like SpaceX, which can carry tens of thousands of pounds into orbit. That’s because Rocket Lab is solely focused on launching small satellites. Manufacturing small space probes has skyrocketed over the last decade, and Rocket Lab says it already has a full slate of customers eager to ride on the Electron vehicle.
The company concluded testing of the Electron in January after the vehicle successfully made it to orbit and deployed four satellites. Now, Rocket Lab is trying to transition into commercial operations full time, but the company has been having some trouble nailing down the launch of It’s Business Time. Rocket Lab first aimed to do the mission at the end of April, but it delayed the flight after engineers found that some of the Electron’s motors were acting funny. The company then rescheduled the flight for June, but after a few delays, the team stood down after noticing the weird behavior with the motors again.
Rocket Lab says it has since analyzed the motors and made changes to their design to get rid of the behavior. The motors have also gone through a new type of qualification testing ahead of the November launch.
When It’s Business Time does take off, it’ll carry five small satellites to orbit. Two will come from manufacturer Spire Global, which makes probes to track ships, planes, and weather. The flight will also include a satellite designed to test out a new type of space sail, which could be used by future manufacturers to help slow down probes in space and bring satellites out of orbit more quickly.
Right after It’s Business Time takes flight, Rocket Lab plans to quickly conduct its scheduled launch for NASA. The mission, known as the 19th Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, or ELaNa-XIX, will carry 10 standardized satellites known as CubeSats that will conduct different types of research from space. The small probes will do everything from monitoring space weather — when particles from the Sun mingle with the particles surrounding Earth — to measuring the radiation environment around our planet.
Rocket Lab hopes to make this quick turnaround between flights more routine in the future. The company has been vocal about its goal to eventually launch Electron rockets every three days. “This year our team focused on scaling up production to churn out Electron rockets at a rate of one per month,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said in a statement. “Now that we’re hitting that production rate, we’re working to get them launched at the same frequency by the end of this year, and increasing cadence into 2019.”
To help up its launch frequency, Rocket Lab also recently announced plans to create a second launch site in the US. Right now, the company solely launches from its private New Zealand facility, which is licensed to launch a rocket every 72 hours. However, the addition of a new launchpad may help Rocket Lab better achieve the launch cadence it desires.
“It’s an incredibly exciting time for the small satellite industry,” Beck said. “Everyone on the planet will benefit from easier access to orbit in terms of innovation, research and exploration, and we’re excited to be the team enabling that.”