4 mins read 02 Aug 2021

Rocket Lab launches demonstration satellite for US Space Force mission

Rocket Lab has successfully launched a satellite to perform research and development for the US Space Force.

NZ-based space company Rocket Lab has returned to the skies, with the successful launch of their latest mission carrying a US-based payload into Earth orbit. The mission, titled It’s A Bit Chile Up Here, launched at 0600 UTC on the 29th of July 2021 and comes after Rocket Lab completed their investigation into the May 15 anomaly which resulted in the loss of the vehicle during ascent to orbit.

The Electron took off from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula in another successful run for the launch vehicle, which has been utilised since 2018. Onboard, it carried a satellite called Monolith, designed to test the viability of a deployable sensor where that sensor contains a high portion of the entire spacecraft’s mass ratio. 

Customers for the It’s A Bit Chile Up Here mission included the US Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program (STP) and the Rocket Systems Launch Program, as well as a partnership with Rapid Agile Launch Initiative Defense Innovation Unit, all of whom are based in the USA. 

“We’re excited to have another Electron on the pad for the Space Test Program,” said Rocket Lab CEO and founder, Peter Beck. “We’re proud to once again demonstrate the flexible and resilient space access required by our government partners”

The launch of this mission itself was originally scheduled to take off from Rocket Lab’s second launch complex, based at NASA’s Wallops Island in Virginia, but was transferred to New Zealand whilst the US-based launch complex worked through administrative certifications. 

Rocket Lab has a strong track record of successful launches, and for this New Zealand-based company, it was their 21st Electron rocket launch and the fourth to occur in 2021. Across its launch history, Electron has failed to reach orbit only on three of 21 launches, inclusive of the May 2021 anomaly.

The company said that the recent anomaly was caused by a second stage igniter becoming corrupted and deviate outside the normal parameters of the engine’s capabilities, causing it to shut down, three minutes and 20 seconds into the flight. However, the first stage performed nominally, including successful re-entry and recovery, from its ocean splashdown. Rocket Lab has since taken corrective measures ensuring to not repeat the same issue in future launches. 

This week’s mission, however, is a continuation from a previous launch in the prior year (May 2019) under the same STP, named That’s a Funny Looking Cactus. For that mission, the Electron rocket deployed three research and development satellites as a part of that program.

“The Space Test Program has a long history of developing advanced space and launch capabilities that we’ve all come to rely on, from global positioning systems, satellite communications, meteorological satellites, and space domain awareness capabilities,” said Beck.

“We’re proud to support the continuation of that innovation through rapid and agile launch on Electron.”

Electron rocket on the launch pad at the NZ-based launch facility. Credit: Rocket Lab.

Sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory, Monolith is a demonstration satellite that will provide data on the possibility of using smaller and more economical satellite buses in the future. Importantly, the mass of Monolith is relatively high compared to the total mass of the spacecraft. This property affects various aspects of the satellite’s performance, including its ability to maintain attitude control and its dynamic properties. If the size of satellites can be reduced without compromising its function, then the cost and development timelines can be reduced too.

“Programs like the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative are shining a light on the crucial role small launch can play in supporting fast-paced innovation in orbit to support innovation and space capabilities,” said Beck.

The rapid development in small, agile and reliable satellite technology is set to reduce development costs and complexities associated with manufacturing. With so many government bodies, universities and private companies eager to send their payloads to space, Rocket Lab is addressing the more rate-limiting step in the process: access to space. There is no doubt that other private launch companies, especially in Australia, will follow suit. 


Video Credit: Rocket Lab.