3 mins read 09 Feb 2021

Another One Leaves the Crust

New Zealand company Rocket Lab has just completed their latest successful launch using complex on-orbit manoeuvering techniques.

A launch by Rocket Lab. Credit: Rocket Lab.

Rockets don’t just go straight up and then straight back down - sometimes you want to use some fancy moves. New Zealand based Rocket launch company Rocket Lab has shown off their moves with their 18th launch, in a mission titled “Another One Leaves the Crust” (yes, there is a Queen theme here - see Rocket Lab’s previous mission “Don’t Stop Me Now”). 

This mission to launch a satellite from the European company OHB Group involved deploying the 50-kg satellite to a 1,200-km orbit from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch site. To achieve this, Rocket Lab used multiple burns of their Curie engine to complete several manoeuvres to reach and leave their target orbit. 

“Increasingly we're seeing small satellite operators seeking unique orbits and complex mission profiles on tight timelines,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and CEO. “The Kick Stage delivers an unmatched level of on-orbit maneuverability for our customers, enabling them to get exactly where they need to, and get the most functionality from their spacecraft, all on a tight timeline.”

Rocket Lab’s 3D printed and liquid propellant Curie engine was key to this success. For “Another One Leaves the Crust” the Curie engine performed two separate burns after separating from the rocket’s second stage - one to raise the satellite into orbit, and another to lower the rocket after the satellite was deployed to speed up the de-orbiting process, a key feature of their sustainable practices which ensure there is no orbital debris left from missions and that they can reuse components in future missions. 

Lift-off! A successful Rocket Lab launch. Credit: Rocket Lab.

The rocket completed more than 267 seconds of burn time; this is more than twice the standard time of a typical low-Earth orbit mission. The rocket’s perigee - the point in its orbit closest to Earth - changed by 1,722-km during this mission, ascending 982-km, and descending 740-km.  

Reaching an orbit of 1,200-km is a unique asset for Rocket Lab as it is in increasing demand for satellite constellations. However, this particular orbit isn’t a common target for rideshare missions - another method of launching satellites - producing a lot of delay. Rocket Lab’s  on-orbit manoeuvring ability seen in “Another One Leaves the Crust” allows them to tailor missions to the needs of their clients on a much shorter timescale. 

This mission was completed by Rocket Lab only six months after contract signing. Mr Beck expressed pride at Rocket Lab’s ability to meet demand without sacrificing quality.  

“By being fully vertically integrated, our team is in control of critical supply chain areas and can quickly scale manufacturing pace to meet customer demand, delivering a vehicle for launch in as little as 30 days,” said Mr Beck. “As the second most frequently launched U.S. [Rocket Company] last year, our team has proven they can deliver an integration and launch campaign with unmatched speed and efficiency for the small satellite industry.

In this instance the mission delivery time was just six months, but our team, manufacturing facilities, and launch infrastructure are capable of supporting even tighter timelines measured in short weeks.”