Tag Archives: Rocket Lab

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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UK estimates its new spaceport could capture thousands of smallsat launches

Capitalism in space: Estimates by the United Kingdom’s space agency suggest that its new spaceport in Scotland could capture thousands of smallsat launches by the end of the 2020s.

Figures released … suggest that existing ‘rideshare’ small satellite launches (small satellites piggybacking on larger missions) are capable of meeting less than 35% of the total demand. This reveals a significant gap in commercial small satellite launch provision for which future UK spaceports are well placed to compete.

The press release also gives an update on the recent actions of the two smallsat rocket companies, Orbex and Lockheed Martin (in partnership with Rocket Lab), to establish operations in Scotland.

It remains to be seen whether these predictions will come true. Right now it appears that a giant boom in the smallsat industry is about to happen, and if it does the need for launchpads will become critical. If so, the policy shift in the UK to favor private spaceflight is arriving at just the right time.

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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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DARPA announces $10 million launch challenge for smallsat rocket companies

Capitalism in space: DARPA yesterday announced a new launch challenge competition for smallsat rocket companies, with prizes of $10, $9, and $8 million for first, second, and third prizes, respectively.

Contest rules call for teams to be given the full details about where and when they’ll launch, what kind of payload they’ll launch, plus what kind of orbit the payload should be launched into, only a couple of weeks in advance. And that’s just half the job. Teams will be required to execute another launch, from a different site, no more than a couple of weeks later.

The precise time frames for giving advance notice are still under discussion, but “I would measure the time scale in days,” Todd Master, program manager for the challenge at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, told reporters today.

Considering that we right now already have at least two smallsat rocket companies, Rocket Lab and Vector, on the verge of doing exactly this, without the need of government money, with a slew of other companies to soon follow, I wonder why DARPA is proposing this competition. It seems somewhat irrelevant at this point, making me wonder if its real purpose is not to encourage rocket development but to find a clever way to hand some government cash to these specific companies.

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Rocket Lab delays launch

Rocket Lab has decided to delay its April 20th launch Electron launch to its next launch window to give it time to review a technical issue uncovered during a dress rehearsal countdown last week.

In an interview during the 34th Space Symposium here, Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said that engineers detected “unusual behavior” in a motor controller for one of the nine engines in its first stage. “We want to take some time to review that data,” he said on the decision to delay the launch.

The next launch window for the mission is in about three weeks, he said. While Rocket Lab owns its own launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, he said the company has to work with third parties that provide range safety services when scheduling launches. That should also be enough time, he added to assess the problem and make any hardware changes to the vehicle.

The second paragraph explains why they announce their launch dates as windows. They must give the local communities surrounding their launchpad sufficient notice of when a launch is planned. Interestingly, this system will become irrelevant when they start launching every two weeks, as planned by the next year. When that happens, there will always be a launch window open.

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Rocket Lab’s future plans

Capitalism in space: This New Zealand news article provides a good look at Rocket Lab’s future launch plans.

Essentially, they hope to do one launch a month later this year, two launches a month in 2019, and then one launch per week in 2020. The article also states that their Electron rocket could have launched two thirds of all satellites placed in space in 2015.

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Fueling issue during Electron countdown dress rehearsal

Rocket Lab today experienced a fueling issue during a countdown dress rehearsal in preparation for a April 20th launch.

Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said the company “experienced a minor fuelling issue on the pad today during a wet dress rehearsal” on Sunday. “Our team is working through the data to ascertain the root cause. As per standard procedure, Fire and Emergency New Zealand is on site as a precautionary measure while the team closes out pad activities for the day.”

It is unclear if this unknown issue will effect their launch window, which begins on April 20 and lasts for two weeks.

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Rocket Lab next launch window opens April 20

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today announced that the first official operational launch of its Electron rocket will take place in a window beginning April 20.

If this launch is successful, expect the company to begin to ramp up its launch pace. Their goal is to have the ability to launch once every three days, which will also give them the ability to quickly schedule payloads at a moment’s notice.

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Rocket Lab unaffected by Swarm/FCC kerfuffle

Rocket Lab is proceeding with preparations for its next and first commercial Electron rocket launch, despite the removal of four Swarm nanosats because the FCC had cancelled its launch license.

Rocket Lab spokeswoman Morgan Bailey said the matter was between Swarm and the FCC, and had not caused any delay to preparations for Rocket Lab’s next launch, which is tipped to take place in April. “For us, it doesn’t really create any issues.”

Its Electron rockets are designed to carry a payload of up to 150 kilograms, meaning the tiny Swarm satellites would only be a small part of any cargo.

It appears the launch will occur in April, though an exact date and a description of its payload has not yet been released.

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FCC accuses satellite startup of launching satellites without a license

Four tiny nanosats built by a California startup that were placed in orbit by India’s PSLV rocket in January now appear to have been launched without an FCC license.

Swarm believes its network could enable satellite communications for orders of magnitude less cost than existing options. It envisages the worldwide tracking of ships and cars, new agricultural technologies, and low cost connectivity for humanitarian efforts anywhere in the world. The four SpaceBees would be the first practical demonstration of Swarm’s prototype hardware and cutting-edge algorithms, swapping data with ground stations for up to eight years.

The only problem is, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had dismissed Swarm’s application for its experimental satellites a month earlier, on safety grounds. The FCC is responsible for regulating commercial satellites, including minimizing the chance of accidents in space. It feared that the four SpaceBees now orbiting the Earth would pose an unacceptable collision risk for other spacecraft.

If confirmed, this would be the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.

The FCC denied the license because the nanosats were so small there is a fear they could become a space junk hazard. The FCC has now vacated an approved license for launching four more Swarm satellites on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket in April because, “The FCC believes that Swarm launched and is operating its original small satellites, despite having been forbidden to do so.”

If this story is true, it illustrates some incredibly stupid decisions by the people running Swarm. The FCC concerns here appear quite reasonable, and the company’s decision to ignore them now means that they might have gambled their entire company away. Moreover, this does harm to Rocket Lab, which has lost a customer.

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A detailed look at Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket

Link here. The article provides some details about the first two launches, but its most interesting section discusses the rocket’s Curie kick stage.

“We kind of made a philosophical decision in that we weren’t going to do multiple burns on the second stage because what that does is it puts the second stage in orbit, in high orbit,” said Mr. Beck. “What we’re trying to do here is launch frequently, and the way that we’ve designed our trajectories is that the second stage will always go into a transfer orbit, which is a nice elliptical orbit, where it deorbits very quickly, and then we use the kick stage to do any orbit raising or circularization.”

This design was specifically chosen so that Rocket Lab would not put large second stages into orbit and would fly responsibly by deorbiting Electron’s second stage quickly so as not to contribute significantly to the space debris environment. “We build this infrastructure in orbit in a sustainable way, and leaving second stages in high orbits is not really conducive to that. So what it means is … we’re just putting a little Curie module up into orbit, and we also have deorbit capability on that, too.”

Moreover, the Curie kick-stage was a direct result of Rocket Lab talking to and listening to their customer base – who wanted to make sure that on ride share missions of Electron that all payloads were separate safely and not re-contact other small satellites launched/deployed on that same mission.

No word yet on when they will fly next, though it sounds as if there will be a number of launches this year, at an ever-increasing pace.

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Smoking battery at Rocket Lab facility

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab is investigating why one of the rocket batteries for its Electron rocket started smoking over the weekend.

Rocket Lab is investigating what caused a rocket battery to overheat and start smoking at its manufacturing facility near Auckland Airport on Sunday night. Rocket Lab spokeswoman Morgan Bailey said fire emergency services were called as a precaution to its site in Mangere at 7pm on Sunday after a battery on an Electron rocket overheated and started smoking.

She said she did not know what action was being made on the rocket when the battery overheated, but the company was looking into it.

No one was hurt in the incident.

They are clearly being tight-lipped about this, partly because of the bad press it might cause and partly because they don’t wish to reveal proprietary information.

Note that this article has me rethinking Rocket Lab as an American company. Based on this article their operations and manufacturing are both in New Zealand. It seems that even if the company was conceived and officially incorporated in the U.S., the rocket is a New Zealand born baby.

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Rocket Lab to launch NASA and Naval Academy smallsats

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has obtained contracts with both NASA and the U.S. Naval Academy to launch a dozen cubesats.

Rocket Lab says it has performed a successful fit check of the CubeSat dispensers for the NASA Venture Class Launch of its Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) XIX mission, which will put a total 12 mini CubeSats into orbit.

A Rocket lab spokeswoman said those would include the Shields-1 payload from NASA’s Langley Research Center, which would focus on studying the harmful effects of harsh radiation environments to spacecraft.

The article doesn’t give any information on the contract itself.

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Google Lunar X-Prize announces that it will award no winners

The Google Lunar X-Prize announced today that none of its five finalists will be able to fly a mission to the Moon before the March 31, 2018 deadline, and thus the prize will be awarded to no one.

With Rocket Lab’s successful Electron launch this past weekend, I thought there might be chance Moon Express might get off the ground by the end of March. They were the only finalist that had any shot at making the deadline. However, the timing of this announcement today suggests to me that Moon Express probably consulted with Rocket Lab after the launch, and probably learned that it was unwise to push for a quick launch. Moon Express then probably contacted the Google Lunar X-Prize to say they wouldn’t be able to win, which in turn resulted in today’s announcement.

The contest however was not a failure. Several of the contestants, most especially Moon Express, have said that they are moving forward as private companies offering the scientific community inexpensive planetary missions. I hope that the foundation these companies laid during the competition will result in real missions in the near future.

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Rocket Lab succeeds in placing three satellites in orbit on second test launch

Capitalism in space: The small rocket company Rocket Lab successfully placed three smallsats in orbit on the second test launch of its Electron rocket yesterday.

I have posted the video of the launch below the fold. Everything unfolded smoothly and without any issues, including the video feed. This success bodes well for Moon Express’s effort to win the Google Lunar X-Prize, which has a deadline the end of March. Though Rocket Lab had said it wants to do three test launches before initiating commercial services, they have already initiated those services with the placement of three satellites by two customers on this launch yesterday. They have also hinted that if this launch was a success they might accelerate commercial operations.

In addition, ULA successfully launched a military satellite on two days ago with its Atlas 5 rocket. The 2018 launch stands are thus as follows:

4 China
2 ULA
1 SpaceX
1 Rocket Lab
1 Japan
1 India

I should add that though the U.S.’s total matches China at the moment, the government shut down prevents any further U.S. launches. It also prevents SpaceX from doing its Falcon Heavy static fire test. (I wonder: would this be an issue if SpaceX was launching from its private launchsite at Boca Chica?)
» Read more

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Rocket Lab announces January launch window

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has announced that it will attempt the second test launch of its Electron rocket during a nine day launch window beginning on January 20.

Bad weather and technical issues prevented this launch in December. Meanwhile, Japan is also planning a test launch in January of its only smallsat rocket, the SS-520. The Japanese entry is a demo mission designed and built by that country’s space agency, while Rocket Lab is entirely private. Both however provide more evidence that 2018 will be a booming year (no pun intended) for rockets.

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Rocket Lab pins down cause of launch abort

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has identified the cause of yesterday’s abort of its Electron rocket, and is ready to proceed tomorrow with the launch.

Rocket Lab says its launch yesterday was aborted due to rising liquid oxygen (LOx) temperatures feeding into one of the Electron’s nine engines. The launch attempt was aborted two seconds before lift-off from its range on Mahia Peninsula between Gisborne and Napier.

It says it will attempt to launch again tomorrow – after 2.30pm – and that the 17m rocket or pad equipment wasn’t damaged.

The company said the slight LOx temperature increase was a result of a ”LOx chill-down bleed schedule” that was not compatible with the warm weather.

This is not that different than the kinds of issues SpaceX experienced in its early launch attempts of both its Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets. It appears that getting the temperature and pressure of the liquid oxygen right is critical, and requires some in use trials to figure it out. With SpaceX, they eventually were able to enhance the process enough to allow them to cool the oxygen to make it more dense and thus get more of it in the tanks to increase the rocket’s launch capacity.

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Rocket Lab launch aborted at engine start

Capitalism in space: The second test flight of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket was aborted just after engine start today (December 12 in New Zealand).

Members of Rocket Lab’s launch team called out ignition of the first stage’s engines as the countdown ticked off the final few seconds before liftoff, followed by an abort.

“Umbilicals in, power’s all up,” one member of the launch team called out over a loop broadcast on Rocket Lab’s live video stream. “Confirm Stage 1 engines have stopped,” an engineer later announced.

A countdown graphic on Rocket Lab’s video feed stopped at T-minus 2 seconds. “As you can see, the vehicle had an abort during the launch auto sequence,” said Daniel Gillies, Rocket Lab’s mission management and integration director who provided commentary on the company’s webcast. “At this stage of flight, the vehicle flight computer is actively monitoring a wide range of vehicle performance parameters, and when any of these parameters are violated, the vehicle determines that its not ready of flight and holds the count.”

The rocket is fine. Though they have not said what caused the abort, they have set their next launch attempt for two days from now, in the evening in the U.S.

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Rocket Lab delays Electron launch till Tuesday

Capitalism in space: Mostly because of poor weather Rocket Lab scrubbed its second launch of its Electron rocket today.

They will try again tomorrow, which in the U.S. will be 8:30 pm Eastern time tonight. The link above will provide a live stream of the launch itself.

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