Tag Archives: Electron

Rocket Lab & China launch satellites

Both Rocket Lab and China today launched rockets to put satellites into orbit, though it is as yet still unclear whether the Chinese launch was successful.

Rocket Lab successfully placed four smallsats into orbit. It was the company’s eightth consecutive successful launch, continuing its perfect launch record.

More important, the company now has completed four launches in 2019. Their goal, announced early this year, was to achieve a monthly pace by summer, then ramp up to twice a month by the end of the year. So far they are not quite meeting that goal, averaging one launch every 1.5 months (March, May, June, August). Still, this record is quite impressive, considering they are a very new and very small private company that it now is beginning to match or exceed the launch pace of other nations (India) as well as well-established companies (ULA).

China’s Long March 3B launched a civilian communications satellite, but according to the story at the link, “the usual announcement of a successful separation has yet to published by Chinese State media.” For the purposes of the launch standings, I will assume at the moment that this was a successful launch, but will revise this post should we learn the satellite did not reach orbit. Update: It appears the launch was successful, but the satellite is having problems. This would mean the launch counts below.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

13 China
12 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India
4 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 18 to 13 in the national rankings.

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Rocket Lab to attempt recovery and reuse of Electron 1st stage

Capitalism in space: Faced with stiff competition from both other smallsat rocket companies as well as the big players like SpaceX, Rocket Lab has announced that they are going to try to recover the first stages of their Electron rocket for later reuse.

Their plan is to use the atmosphere and parachutes to slow the stage down as it returns to Earth, and then have a helicopter snag it and land it on a ship.

They had looked into the idea of vertically landing it, like SpaceX does with its Falcon 9, but found it would make their rocket to big and expensive.

This plan is not as radical as it sounds. The Air Force did something similar for almost a decade in the 1960s to recover film from its surveillance satellites.

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Rocket Lab announces next launch

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today announced that it has scheduled the launch window in June for its next commercial launch.

The press release did not state exactly when in June. Either way, it is clear that the company is steadily ramping up its launch operations towards its goal of bi-monthly launches by the end of the year.

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Rocket Lab completes second commercial launch in 2019

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has successfully placed three Air Force technology satellites in orbit.

This is their second commercial launch in 2019, and fifth successful launch overall. They have said that they plan a total of 16 launches this year. With eight months left in the year and 14 launches to go, they will have to up their pace to more than once per month pretty soon. As this is their announced intention, their launch rate should accelerate before the year is out.

One more interesting detail: With this launch they have now put 28 small satellites in space, on five launches. At this pace they are beginning to match, in a different way, the capabilities of larger rockets that can launch that many smallsats on a single rocket. Rocket Lab might be more expensive per satellite, but provides each launched satellite a more customized service, including more flexibility in orbital choice and a far more reliable schedule.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race remain unchanged:

6 China
5 SpaceX
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

However, the U.S. has now widened its lead over China to 10 to 6.

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Rocket Lab now building smallsats also

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced this week that it is now offering satellite manufacture in addition to its launch services.

The “Photon” satellite platform was developed so that customers would not have to build their own satellite hardware. “Small satellite operators want to focus on providing data or services from space, but building satellite hardware is a significant barrier to achieving this,” said Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck, in a statement. “The time, resources and expertise required to build hardware can draw small satellite operators away from their core purpose, delaying their path to orbit and revenue. As the turn-key solution for complete small satellite missions, Rocket Lab brings space within easy reach. We enable our customers to focus on their payload and mission – we look after the rest.”

The satellites are designed for a range of Low Earth Orbit missions including technology demonstrations, risk reduction pathfinders, constellations, and hosted payloads, the company said in a statement.

This is not surprising. With their Electron rocket now operational, and about to begin monthly launches, they have the profits and margin to offer a complete launch package to smallsat customers.

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Air Force confirms more Rocket Lab launches

Capitalism in space:: With the successful launch of a DARPA satellite by Rocket Lab last week, the Air Force yesterday confirmed the purchase of several more launches on the company’s Electron Rocket.

Three satellites will be launched to low Earth orbit later this month from Mahia, New Zealand, using Rocket Lab USA’s Electron rocket.

…The upcoming Rocket Lab launch is one of five planned in 2019. … Five small launches will send 21 experimental satellites to space by the end of December, said Lt. Col. Andrew Anderson, chief of the DoD Space Test Program Branch.

One of the five will be by Vox Space later this year. The company will use Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket that is air launched from a Boeing 747 mothership.

Anderson said there is possibly another vendor in the mix but only Rocket Lab and Vox Space so far can be identified.

I suspect that the unnamed vendor is Vector, but the Air Force is likely not going commit to this until Vector gets farther along in its test program.

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Rocket Lab launch a success

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully placed a DARPA technology satellite in orbit using its smallsat Electron rocket.

Expect there to be an increase in the pace of launches from this company in the coming months.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race remain the same however:

3 SpaceX
3 China
3 Europe (Arianespace)
2 Russia

The U.S. however now leads in the national rankings, 6 to 3, over China and Europe. I list Rocket Lab as an American company because that’s what the company calls itself, even though it launches from New Zealand and right now builds the bulk of its rockets there.

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Live feed of today’s Rocket Lab Electron launch

The countdown to Rocket Lab’s first launch in 2019, to place a DARPA technology demo satellite in orbit, is proceeding without problems, with the four hour launch window beginning at 6:30 pm (Eastern) today. The launch itself is presently set for 7:27 pm (Eastern).

The link will include the company’s live stream of the launch, when it begins about fifteen minutes before launch.

Should this launch succeed, Rocket Lab has said it would begin more regular launches, aiming for monthly and even bi-monthly launches before the end of the year.

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Electron launch scrubbed, rescheduled for March 26

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab’s launch today of a DARPA satellite was scrubbed when a video transmitter did not work as expected.

“The team has identified a video transmitter 13dB down with low performance,” Rocket Lab tweeted. “It’s not an issue for flight, but we want to understand why, so we’re waiving off for the day.”

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, added that the rocket was “technically good to fly, as we have redundant links, but we don’t know why the performance dropped and that makes me uncomfortable.”

In an update a few hours later, Rocket Lab said crews aim to replace the suspect video transmitter in time for a second launch attempt Tuesday (U.S. time). The four-hour launch window Tuesday will open at 6:30 p.m. EDT (2230 GMT).

Rocket Lab had hoped to move to monthly launches beginning in February. While they will probably do so before the year is out, it seems it might take most of the year to get to that pace.

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Next Rocket Lab launch delayed because of late delivery of payload

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab’s next Electron launch, initial scheduled for late February, has been rescheduled for late march because its DARPA payload arrived late.

Rocket Lab confirmed the new schedule March 6. “Following a delay to payload arrival, the R3D2 spacecraft is now at LC-1 and integration is underway,” the company tweeted. In a later statement, the company said the launch would take place between March 16 and 30 (U.S. time), with four-hour windows each day from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern.

Being a very new rocket, with only three launches under its belt. it is important to learn that the delay was caused by the payload, not the rocket.

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Rocket Lab gets DARPA launch contract

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today announced a new launch contract with DARPA, dedicating the company’s first launch in 2019 to that government military research agency.

DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) mission is scheduled for launch in late February and intends to space-qualify a prototype reflect array antenna to improve radio communications in small spacecraft. The antenna, made of a tissue-thin Kapton membrane, packs tightly inside the small satellite for stowage during launch, before deploying to its full size of 2.25 meters in diameter once it reaches low Earth orbit. This high compaction ratio enables larger antennas in smaller satellites, enabling satellite owners to take advantage of volume-limited launch opportunities while still providing significant capability. The mission could help validate emerging concepts for a resilient sensor and data transport layer in low Earth orbit – a capability that does not exist today, but one which could revolutionize global communications by laying the groundwork for a space-based internet.

…The mission, the first of monthly Electron launches this year, will lift-off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula of New Zealand. To ensure precise insertion and responsible orbital deployment, the R3D2 payload will be deployed via the Electron Kick Stage to a circular orbit. Using this unique launch method, Electron’s second stage is left in a highly elliptical orbit where the stage is subject to significant atmospheric drag, causing it to de-orbit and burn up to nothing in a reduced time frame. The Kick Stage is then used to deploy the satellite payload to a precise orbit, following which the Kick Stage can perform a de-orbit burn to speed up its re-entry, leaving no orbital debris behind in space. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sections in the quote above indicate the schedule. Rocket Lab had suggested last year that once it successfully completed its November and December 2018 launches it would in 2019 launch monthly. They are still clearly pushing for that schedule, but it is also clear now that they will not launch in January and their February launch will be late in the month, suggesting the next launch will likely not be in March.

These delays at this point are not significant, though if they do not ramp up to that monthly schedule by the end of 2019 it will be.

This late announcement of a payload for the first 2019 launch also suggests that DARPA was willing to pay a premium to leapfrog over Rocket Lab’s already signed customers. My industry sources also suggest that the U.S. military has in the past few months become very very interested in these new smallsat rockets, and has been approaching them all to arrange future flights.

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Rocket Lab completes its third successful launch in 2018

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today (Sunday) successfully launched thirteen cubesats using its Electron rocket.

With this third launch, Rocket Lab now has more launches than Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK), a launch operation that has been around since the 1980s.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race remain unchanged:

35 China
20 SpaceX
13 Russia
10 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

China still leads the U.S. 35 to 33 in the national rankings.

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Rocket Lab raises an additional $140 million

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has raised an additional $140 million in investment capital following its successful first operational launch last week.

The company announced Nov. 15 that it closed a Series E funding round, led by existing investor Future Fund, an Australian sovereign wealth fund. Several other existing investors also joined the round, including Greenspring Associates, Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, DCVC (Data Collective), Promus Ventures and K1W1. One new investor, Accident Compensation Corporation of New Zealand, joined the round.

The Series E round comes after the company raised $75 million in a Series D round in March 2017. The company has now raised more than $288 million to date. Rocket Lab did not disclose the valuation of the latest round, but said it exceeded the “$1-billion-plus” valuation from its Series D round.

In the race to grab the smallsat market, Rocket Lab is far ahead of its nearest competitors, Virgin Orbit and Vector. If I had to rank them at this moment, I would say that Virgin Orbit is second with Vector third.

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Rocket Lab successfully completes its first operational Electron launch

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully completed its first operational launch, the third Electron rocket launch attempt (two of which succeeded) and the second successful launch this year.

You can see a replay of the launch here. The payload was six smallsats and a “drag sail” designed to test technology for deorbiting satellites more efficiently.

They plan to follow with another launch in a month.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race remained unchanged:

31 China
17 SpaceX
10 Russia
8 ULA
8 Europe (Arianespace)

China continues to lead in the national rankings. Last year I initially counted Rocket Lab as an American company, but was convinced by others that it was better labeled as New Zealand, since the rocket was assembled and launched there, using a local team. I now have decided this is a mistake. The rocket is essentially American-made, and the company that markets it is American-based. It also plans to add an American launch site at Wallops Island. This is a tough call, but I have decided to change Rocket Lab back in my listings as an American launch company. This means China now leads the U.S. 31 to 28.

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Watch Rocket Lab launch tonight

You can watch Rocket Lab’s launch of its smallsat Electron rocket tonight at 10 pm (Eastern) at Space.com, or at the company’s own website.

A lot hinges on the success of this launch. The company is gearing up to move to monthly and eventually weekly launches, but to do so it must still demonstrate it can launch successfully and with some regularity. If they succeed tonight, they plan to follow with another launch in a month.

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Rocket Lab adds two more satellites to its November 11 launch

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has signed on a new customer for its next Electron launch on November 11, adding two more satellites to the rocket’s payload.

US/New Zealand orbital launch provider Rocket Lab has signed a contract with Australian Internet of Things (IoT) start-up Fleet Space Technologies to launch two satellites from Fleet’s Proxima series, which will form the foundation of a global IoT communications constellation. The satellites have been added to the manifest for Rocket Lab’s upcoming mission, ‘It’s Business Time’, scheduled for launch on November 11 from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula.

The Fleet satellites will join other payloads for the launch: two Spire Global Lemur-2 satellites, the Irvine CubeSat STEM Program (ICSP) IRVINE01 educational CubeSat, NABEO, a drag sail technology demonstrator designed and built by High Performance Space Structure Systems GmBH and a GeoOptics Inc. satellite, built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

Thus, a lot will be riding on the success of this launch. It will only be the third time the company has attempted to launch Electron. So far, they have only had one successful launch.

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Rocket Lab chooses Wallops as first U.S. launch site

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has picked the spaceport at Wallops in Virginia as its first U.S. launch site.

The company is planning its first launch of Electron from U.S. soil and its Wallops facility for Quarter 3 of 2019, less than a year from today’s announcement. “We needed to get pad and support up quickly, and Wallops met the bill completely for what we needed to achieve in this time,” said Mr. Beck to NASASpaceflight.

Overall, the Wallops launch pad, known as Launch Complex 2 (LC-2), will be Rocket Lab’s second dedicated launch complex, will be capable of supporting monthly orbital launches, and is designed to serve U.S. government and commercial missions. The site will bring Rocket Lab’s global launch availability across two launch complexes to more than 130 missions per year.

It really does appear that once they successfully complete their next two launches in November and December, the company will be aiming to meet a launch cadence of at least one orbital launch per week.

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Rocket Lab officially opens new rocket facility

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today unveiled a new rocket production facility designed to mass produce its rockets.

The new 7,500 sq/m (80,700 sq/ft) rocket development and production facility in Auckland, is designed for rapid mass production of the Electron rocket. Adding to Rocket Lab’s existing production facility and headquarters in Huntington Beach, California, the new facility brings Rocket Lab’s manufacturing footprint to more than 4.5 acres and enables the company to build an Electron rocket every week.

The new facility was officially opened on 12 October 2018 NZDT, by Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck and special guest William Shatner, best known for his role as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek series and films.

It suddenly occurred to me that the construction of this facility might explain the long delay in Rocket Lab’s next launch. I suspect they wanted to incorporate any corrections or redesign to the malfunctioning motor controller that was identified just prior to a planned launch in June.

This also suggests that once they complete their next two launches, now scheduled for November and December, they will hit the ground running and will be aiming for frequent launches, maybe as many as once per week.

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SpaceX gets contract to launch private lunar rover missions

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has won a contract for two launches of lunar rovers built by a private Japanese company.

okyo-based lunar-exploration startup Ispace has signed up for launches on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in 2020 and 2021. The first will carry a lunar lander into orbit around the moon, and the second aims to put one on the moon’s surface so it can deploy a pair of rovers, Ispace said Wednesday. “We share the vision with SpaceX of enabling humans to live in space, so we’re very glad they will join us in this first step of our journey,” Ispace Chief Executive Officer Takeshi Hakamada said in a statement.

SpaceX already has a contract for another private lunar rover, built by the Israeli company SpaceIL, that is set to launch as a secondary payload in December.

Both companies are former competitors in the Google Lunar X-Prize competition. Based on these contracts, as well as the pending launch of Moon Express’s private lunar rover on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket, it appears that private commercial planetary missions are about to become routine.

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Rocket Lab signs another satellite launch contract

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has signed another satellite launch contract, this time with the Luxembourg-based company Kleos Space.

US orbital launch provider Rocket Lab has signed a contract with Luxembourg-based satellite technology company Kleos Space to launch the scouting mission satellites that will geolocate maritime radio to guard borders, protect assets and save lives.

The multi-satellite system of the Kleos Scouting Mission (KSM) will form the cornerstones of a 20-system constellation that will geolocate VHF transmissions from marine vessels to provide global activity-based intelligence data as a service. The Kleos Space constellation will detect radio transmissions and pinpoint their origin and timing, enabling governments and organizations to detect activity such as drug and people smuggling, illegal fishing and piracy, and also identify those in need of search and rescue at sea.

The contract is for launches in mid-2019, which suggests that Rocket Lab is increasingly confident that it will be able to ramp up operations significantly once it makes its next two launches in November and December.

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Rocket Lab signs deal with UAE company for 10 Electron launches

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today announced the signing of a 10-launch contract with Circle Aerospace, a new UAE satellite company.

The agreement sees Rocket Lab selected as the sole launch provider and primary provider of associated mission services for Circle Aerospace clients. Circle Aerospace missions will primarily launch from Rocket Lab’s private orbital launch site, Launch Complex-1, in New Zealand. Launches may also be conducted from Rocket Lab’s US launch site as required.

Circle Aerospace appears to be positioning itself as a smallsat manufacturer for others, but it is unclear at this point who its customers are. What is somewhat clear is that the company has deep pockets, either from private UAE oil money or government money (which are usually the same thing in the Arab Middle East).

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Rocket Lab and Ecliptic agree to use Electron kick stage as a payload platform

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has struck a deal with Ecliptic Enterprises, the company that provides the on-board launch cameras for ULA and others, for using the Electron upper kick stage as a platform for payloads.

For those missions designated by Rocket Lab to accommodate hosted payloads, Electron’s capable kick stage, proven on the Electron’s first successful launch to orbit in January this year (“Still Testing”), will serve as the platform for one to several hosted payloads per mission, providing a structure for payload mounting, power, command and telemetry functions and attitude control. Ecliptic will deliver fully integrated hosted payloads to Rocket Lab for final integration onto Electron’s kick stage. Once in orbit, Ecliptic avionics will control all hosted payload operations and related data handling; Ecliptic will also manage the end-to-end mission service and experience for its customers. Ecliptic’s U.S. domestic and international customers will be from commercial and government sectors, as well as from academia, media and non-profit arenas.

This is fascinating. The whole reason the smallsat rocket industry is booming is because smallsat builders no longer wanted to be secondary payloads on the bigger rockets. They needed smaller rockets specifically catered to their needs as the primary payload. Because of this, Rocket Lab and Vector and a host of other smallsat rocket companies are now racing to fulfill that need.

Yet, Rocket Lab is now going to offer space on its tiny Electron rocket for even smaller secondary payloads. Ecliptic will act to sign up and coordinate the secondary payloads.

There is money to be made in space, and this competition to make it is creating opportunities for everyone. If you build a very small, very cheap cubesat in your garage, you likely can now go to Ecliptic to arrange to fly it on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

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Next Rocket Lab launch set for November

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has now announced its next launch will take place in November, with plans for a second launch one month later.

Rocket Lab stood down from an earlier launch window for It’s Business Time in June 2018, after unusual behavior was identified in a motor controller during pre-launch operations. Initially, it was thought the recycle would be a matter of days, before the decision was made to rollback the vehicle and change out the controller.

…Now Rocket Lab has noted that, following analysis, the motor controllers have been modified and – as such – required new qualification testing ahead of the next launch which won’t take place until November

In a sense this delay and their response to it speaks well of the company. Rather than proceed with another controller, they dug deeper, located a more fundamental problem, and have moved to fix it. And it appears they have done this relatively quickly.

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Lockheed Martin key investor in Rocket Lab

Capitalism in space: In this article about how Lockheed Martin and a smallsat rocket company have won launch development contracts from the British government in connection with the UK’s first spaceport in Scotland was this tidbit of information I have never known:

Lockheed Martin and Orbex, a UK-based company development a small satellite booster, have announced their intention to launch from Sutherland. Lockheed Martin will receive £23.5 million ($31.1 million) and Orbex will get £5.5 million ($7.3 million) from the U.K. Space Agency to advance work on their launcher programs.

The British government, Lockheed Martin and Orbex made their announcements at the Farnborough International Airshow.

Lockheed Martin is reportedly interested in launching a variant of Rocket Lab’s Electron booster from the Sutherland site. The U.S. aerospace contractor is a strategic investor in Rocket Lab, which already operates an orbital spaceport in New Zealand, and is planning to develop a U.S. launch pad for the Electron vehicle, which has made two test flights to date. [emphasis mine]

It sounds as if Lockheed Martin, after funding Rocket Lab and letting it do all the initial risky development, is now moving in to use its vast resources to develop its own competitive smallsat rocket, possibly using some of the knowledge gained by Rocket Lab.

Hat tip reader Steve Golson.

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Rocket Lab plans second launch site in U.S.

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab is considering opening a second launch site in U.S.

American sites being considered were Cape Canaveral in Florida, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Rocket Lab said.

The firm expected its first launch from the United States would take place in the second quarter of 2019.

Since the company has not yet succeeded in initiating commercial operations, we should not get too excited by this news. At the same time, that they are considering doing this suggests they are increasingly confident about their future.

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Rocket Lab cancels Electron launch for this launch window

In reviewing the motor controller problem that caused a launch scrub earlier this week, Rocket Lab has decided to cancel further launch attempts during the present launch window ending July 6.

In a statement, Rocket Lab said “the motor controller behaviour was similar to that previously identified during wet dress rehearsal operations in April.”

“This issue was analysed and corrective measures [put] in place, however a similar issue presented during yesterday’s pre-launch operational checks. All systems had previously performed nominally during a wet dress rehearsal on 16 June.”

A motor controller is a device that governs commands given to selected hardware and software systems throughout the launch vehicle.

My guess is that they are now worried about a systemic problem with the motor controllers, since the same problem has now occurred on two different units, and it has been an intermittent problem as well.

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Rocket Lab announces new launch date

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has announced a new launch window for the first operational launch of its Electron rocket, beginning on June 23 for fourteen days.

Those dates are based on New Zealand time. If they launch at the very beginning of this window it will occur on June 22 in U.S.

The two month delay was caused by a problem with a “motor control unit.” This has been replaced. In the interim they have also added two more commercial payloads to the rocket.

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