6 mins read 19 Feb 2021

RocketLab to carry Australian payloads to Low-Earth Orbit

Rocket Lab is set to launch their next rocket to low-Earth orbit in mid-March, carrying several Australian and international payloads as well as the Photon spacecraft, in preparation for their upcoming mission to the Moon.

Rocket Lab's 10th mission, Running Out Of Fingers. Credit: Sam Toms.


NZ-based launch company, Rocket Lab, is gearing up for an exciting launch in mid-March that hosts a suite of international payloads, including three Australian CubeSats, in addition to Rocket Lab’s in-house designed spacecraft, which will be used as a demonstrator mission. 

The mission, titled They Go Up So Fast, will be Rocket Lab’s 19th Electron launch and the second to occur in 2021 after the successful launch of their Another One Leaves The Crust mission in mid-January. 

This mission’s Electron rocket will carry six payloads into low-Earth orbit (LEO), including two CubeSats developed byAustralian startups, Fleet Space and Myriota respectively, and a third payload, which will be a collaboration between the University of New South Wales and the Royal Australian Air Force. 

The Electron will take off from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula in what the company hopes will be another successful run for the launch vehicle, which has been utilised since 2018. The mission will finally take the count of their satellite launch count to over 100.

“We’re delighted to be delivering tailored access to orbit for our customers once again, many of whom have previously launched with Electron,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. 

“What’s truly unique in Electron is the ability to deploy a range of customer satellites, then continue with a separate Photon mission. It means making multiple, distinction missions capable within the same launch, reducing the time, cost and complexity of innovating on orbit.”

Testing the Photon spacecraft

Rocket Lab Readies A Photon Spacecraft for NASA Moon Mission for Q1 of 2021. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab has been expanding its repertoire in leaps and bounds, and this mission will involve another major milestone for the private company. 

Electron will be carrying Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite bus to demonstrate its viability in LEO while building space heritage ahead of the company’s CAPSTONE mission to the Moon scheduled for later this year.

The Photon Pathstone spacecraft, designed and developed by Rocket Lab, will be the second Photon spacecraft to be launched, after the first was launched in mid-2020. This spacecraft will carry the six payloads, deploying five of them at an altitude of 550 km (LEO), then firing its Curie engine to reduce altitude and deploy the last satellite payload at 450 km.

A number of structural and functional subsystems will be tested and demonstrated, including thermal control, attitude control, star trackers and deep-space radio communications. 

With its ability to propel itself to different altitudes to deliver different payloads at a specified destination, the Photon spacecraft is able to provide the company with an innovative rideshare model for its customers.

Fleet Space to send Centauri 3 nanosatellite

Artist rendition of the Centauri 3 satellite in orbit. Credit: Fleet Space.

Fleet Space, a specialist in the Internet of Things (IoT) technology, will be sending their fifth nanosatellite, Centauri 3 into orbit aboard the They Go Up So Fast mission. The 6-unit CubeSat (six 10cm cubes, or a total size of 30cm x 20cm x 10cm) will be part of a constellation of 140 which will eventually provide global satellite connectivity for the IoT network, utilised in industries like mining and asset management. 

Fleet Space CEO Flavia Tata Nardini says “it is an extraordinary day for Fleet Space as we launch our fifth commercial nanosatellite- our most advanced payload yet. Global critical infrastructure is challenged by asset remoteness and requires secure two-way communications as well as the ability to remotely manage their assets. 

“Fleet Space has worked for many years to create these world-first features that underpin the real internet from space for things, putting the company as a leader in critical infrastructure IoT management around the world. 

“Our Centauri 3 carries our 25th payload manufactured by Fleet Space, and it is our most advanced generation yet, representing the beginning of volume manufacturing of space hardware in South Australia that will lead to a constellation of 140 nanosatellites.” 

This will be Fleet’s second launch aboard a Rocket Lab vehicle, with their first launch in 2018 carrying the company’s Proxima I and Proxima II payloads into orbit. These satellites will also support Fleet’s Seven Sisters mission in 2023, which is part of the NASA Artemis Program and aims to help search for water on the Moon.

The Myriota 7 nanosatellite

Meanwhile, Myriota will be putting up its Myriota 7 nanosatellite to join its existing constellation of satellites, providing almost real-time connectivity from anywhere in the world. These small satellites consist of a 3-unit configuration (roughly the size of a loaf of bread), with two deployable fixed solar arrays to supply energy to the instrumentation on board. The company eventually plans to have 50 CubeSats as part of its network in LEO.

Founded in South Australia, Myriota specialises in providing low-cost, long-battery life IoT solutions for industries like transport logistics, mining and defence. 

Myriota CTO and co-founder Dr David Haley highlights the importance of providing connectivity to previously ‘offline’ industries, adding that “the launch with Rocket Lab marks the arrival of a new generation of Myriota satellite, expanding our constellation to serve our growing, global customer base.”

The M2 CubeSat by UNSW and RAAF

A 3D model of the UNSW Cubesat, a project in collaboration with the RAAF. Credit: UNSW

The M2 CubeSat, a collaboration between University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra Space and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), will be the third Australian payload to be launched aboard the Electron rocket. The project is a demonstration of local Australian space technology and capability, and this particular CubeSat will be used to showcase instrumentation such as sensors, communications and on-board processing competence for tasks such as maritime surveillance.

The 3-unit satellite underwent testing ‘simulated-space’ testing back in July 2020 to determine how it would perform in the extreme conditions of launch and LEO. 

Professor Russell Boyce, the Director of UNSW Canberra Space, says that these low-cost satellites will be an integral part of Australia’s defence capabilities.

“Australia has a role to play in solving these problems, both for our own economic security and as responsible global citizens. UNSW Canberra Space looks forward to leading the way, particularly in equipping Australian satellites with artificial intelligence to better meet user needs for rapid access to information,” he says.


What’s in a name?

The Electron rocket on the launch pad for the Don't Stop Me Now mission in June 2020. Credit: Rocket Lab

The designated mission title, They Go Up So Fast, is another one of Rocket Lab’s many titles involving a humorous play on words. It reflects the impressive rate at which Rocket Lab has been launching, as well as the prolific number of satellites that are now being developed by private companies. It is as if Rocket Lab is a proud parent, releasing its Photon Pathstone into the big wide world of LEO to pave the way for future Photon spacecrafts with both orbital and interplanetary configurations.

The They Go Up So Fast mission is currently scheduled to launch in mid-March, with more launch details and Rocket Lab’s weblink to the video broadcast being made available closer to the time.