Tag Archives: Rocket Lab

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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Making smallsat rockets at Vector

Payload structure for Vector's Vector-R rocket

In the coming year we should see the spectacular first launches from two smallsat rocket companies, Vector and Virgin Orbit, joining Rocket Lab (which has already launched successfully three times) to form an entirely new industry of small rockets designed specifically for launching cubesat and nanosat satellites, what I call smallsats.

The image on the right shows the payload adapter fitting for Vector’s Vector-R rocket. The red and silver rectangular objects are dummy cubesat payloads. Overall, this structure, only about three feet high, will allow Vector to place as many as eight smallsats into orbit on one launch.

The picture was taken yesterday during a tour of Vector’s facilities given to me personally by Vector’s CEO, Jim Cantrell. During my previous tour of Vector back in March 2017, Cantrell had described the company’s planned test launch schedule as follows:

The company is presently in the testing phase leading up to their first orbital launches, which they hope to start in 2018. Right now they are building a series of full scale versions of their Vector-R rocket with a dummy second stage. The idea is to do a string of suborbital test flights, the first of which will fly in about a week from Mohave in California, with the second flying from the Georgia spaceport in Camden County.

The first two launches occurred as promised, first in Mojave on May 3, 2017 and then in Georgia on August 3, 2017. An announcement in October 2017 set the launch of the third test first for January 2018 but that launch did not happen. In March 2018 Vector announced it planned to launch two cubesats into orbit from Alaska by the end of 2018, but this did not happen either.

Because of the delays, with no explanation, I was beginning to harbor doubts about the company’s status. Last week Cantrell gave a talk at Tucson’s Space Business Roundtable, and I went to that talk to find out what the issues were as well as attempt to find out when they did plan to launch.

Cantrell not only filled me in on the details, but generously offered to give me another personal tour of Vector’s facilities, which had grown significantly since my 2017 tour. Then, Vector employed only thirty people and was based in a small warehouse. Now it employs more than 150, and has two much larger facilities in Tucson as well as one in California (where its mission control is based).

First let me outline the company’s launch status.
» Read more

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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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Is Rocket Lab an American or New Zealand company?

Link here. According to Rocket Lab’s own president, his company is American, even though much of its history is based in New Zealand.

When I asked Peter Beck whether his company was Kiwi or American, he didn’t shirk from waving the Stars and Stripes. “Look, we’ve been an American company and proud of it for many years,” he said.

“The New Zealand element is very important and very special to us but we never tried to hide the fact we’re a US company and this is where New Zealand companies go wrong in the fact that if you want to be a large, successful global company, it’s very difficult to be that out of New Zealand.”

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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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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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