Rocket Lab schedules next launch, plans 22 launches in 2024

Rocket Lab has completed its investigation into a September 2023 launch failure and has now scheduled its next Electron launch for the end of November.

More significant, it says it has 22 booked launches scheduled for 2024, a pace that would more than double its previous annual record of 9 launches in 2022.

In its third quarterly report it also revealed that it lost just over $40 million in that quarter, more than last year’s third quarter by 17%. The September launch failure impacted those numbers, though the company’s revenue in the third quarter still grew by 7% from the previous year.

To achieve 22 launches next year will require the company to launch twice a month. With three launchpads (two in New Zealand and one in the U.S.) this is possible, but challenging. Of those launches, nine will attempt to recover and reuse the first stage, and two will not be orbital but suborbital hypersonic tests for the military.

Rocket Lab expects to resume Electron launches before end of year

Following September 2023 launch failure of its Electron rocket, Rocket Lab now says it has obtained a launch approval from the FAA, and expects to resume Electron launches before end of year.

In the company’s October 25, 2023 press release, it stated the following:

The FAA, the federal licensing body for U.S. launch vehicles, has now confirmed that Rocket Lab’s launch license remains active, which is the first step to enable launches to resume. Rocket Lab is now finalizing a meticulous review into the anomaly’s root cause, a process that involves working through an extensive fault tree to exhaust all potential causes for the anomaly, as well as completing a comprehensive test campaign to recreate the issue on the ground. The FAA is providing oversight of Rocket Lab’s mishap investigation to ensure Rocket Lab complies with its FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements. In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was granted official observer status to the investigation. The full review is expected to be completed in the coming weeks, with Rocket Lab currently anticipating a return to flight later this quarter with corrective measures in place.

Though the FAA is apparently not trying to slow things down, this release gives us a hint at how the new so-called streamlined regulations established this year are actually making things harder. These regulations force the FAA to get more involved in making sure the company has done all due diligence, something the FAA really isn’t qualified to do. To meet these demands, companies now apparently have to jump through many new hoops to satisfy the new regulations.

Electron rocket fails during launch

Rocket Lab tonight (September 19, 2023 in New Zealand) experienced a launch failure during a launch of its Electron rocket from its New Zealand spaceport.

The failure occurred right after separation of the first stage from the upper stage. From that point all video from the rocket ceased, and the data indicated it was losing velocity, suggesting some failure of the second stage when its engines should have ignited.

This launch was to have been the second in a four-launch contract with the American company Capella Space, aimed at launching its constellation of commercial radar satellites for Earth observation.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race remain unchanged:

65 SpaceX
43 China
13 Russia
7 Rocket Lab
7 India

American private enterprise still leads China in successful launches 76 to 43, and the entire world combined 76 to 69. SpaceX by itself still trails the rest of the world combined (excluding American companies) 65 to 69.

Rocket Lab launches a satellite reusing one rocket engine from previous flight

Rocket Lab not only successfully launched a satellite tonight (August 24 in New Zealand), its first stage used a rocket engine that had flown previously.

In addition, the first stage was designed to be reused, and was quickly recovered after it splashed down in the Pacific. The plan is to refly either this or another recovered first stage in one of the company’s upcoming launches in the coming months, making Rocket Lab the second private company in the world, after SpaceX, to reuse a first stage.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

57 SpaceX
36 China
12 Russia
7 Rocket Lab

In the national rankings, American private enterprise now leads China in successful launches 66 to 36. It also leads the entire world combined, 66 to 59. SpaceX by itself still trails the rest of the world (excluding American companies) 57 to 59 in successful launches.

Lockheed Martin opens factory to build smallsats on an assembly-line basis

Capitalism in space: As part of fulfilling a contract won from the Space Force, Lockheed Martin has now opened a new factory in Colorado expressly designed to build smallsats on an assembly-line basis.

Lockheed Martin’s 20,000-square-foot factory is located at the company’s Waterton campus near Denver, Colorado. It has six parallel assembly lines and capacity to manufacture 180 small satellites per year, Kevin Huttenhoff, Lockheed Martin’s senior manager for space data transport, told SpaceNews. The first satellites to be made at the facility are for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency. SDA plans to build a mesh network of hundreds of data transport and missile-detection sensor satellites in low Earth orbit.

Lockheed Martin in February 2022 won a $700 million contract to produce 42 communications satellites for SDA’s Transport Layer Tranche 1. The company in November 2020 also won a $187.5 million contract to manufacture 10 Transport Layer Tranche 0 satellites that are scheduled to launch later this month. The Transport Layer Tranche 1 satellites — projected to launch in late 2024 — will be made at the new factory. The Tranche 0 satellites were assembled at a different facility where Lockheed Martin manufactures Global Positioning System (GPS) spacecraft.

The multiple assembly lines allows the company to configure each for a different customer and satellite, with one for example producing smallsats for a military contract while another produces smallsats for a commercial customer.

Of all the big space companies, Lockheed Martin has made the most moves quickly adapting to the new space market of new rockets and small satellites. Not only has it built this facility, it has been an major investor in several new smallsat rocket companies, including Rocket Lab and ABL. It also opened its first assembly-line smallsat factory in 2017.

Rocket Lab revises design of its new Neutron rocket

Rocket Lab has revised the design of its new Neutron rocket, reducing the number of fairing shells from four to two, and shifting the location of the first stages fins.

One of the major changes shown is how the payload fairing operates. In prior concepts, the fairing was comprised of 4 quarters that opened outward to allow second stage and payload separation. The new design shows two halves of the fairing opening. Moving from four to two fairings will provide more reliability for the rocket and fewer moving parts.

Another change is a slight design to the forward strakes (fins) that help steer the rocket back to its landing site. Unlike SpaceX, which uses grid fins, the Neutron rocket will use fins that provide more lift and can return to the launch site from further downrange. The forward fins also appear to have moved further up on the rocket, and the fairing halves size made a bit smaller.

The landing legs have also been redesigned, apparently to more closely match the design used on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

These are all relatively minor changes, none of which change the fundamental design that calls for the rocket to be almost entirely reusable.

Rocket Lab delays its private mission to Venus two years to ’25

In order to focus at this time on its commercial customers, Rocket Lab has decided to reschedule its private mission to Venus, delaying its two years to the next launch window in 2025.

The mission appeared to still be on in May, before Rocket Lab quietly put it on the back-burner last month. Spokesperson Morgan Bailey said it had decided to delay the mission so it could concentrate on its commercial launches. “The decision was a business one and we look forward to delivering the Venus mission in 2025,” she said.

It also appears that the mission could be pushed back further if customer demand requires it.

Rocket Lab launches seven satellites; recovers first stage from ocean

Rocket Lab today successfully used its Electron rocket to place seven smallsats into orbit, lifting off from New Zealand.

The first stage used parachutes to softly splash down in the ocean, where it was recovered for refurbishment and relaunch. As this stage is the first in which this full reuse will be attempted, the ability to refurbish the stage after its salt water swim remains the critical factor. We will not know its state until a complete inspection plus static fire engine tests are completed.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

47 SpaceX
26 China
9 Russia
6 Rocket Lab
5 India

American private enterprise now leads China in successful launches 54 to 26, and the entire world combined 54 to 45, while SpaceX alone still leads the rest of the world (excluding other American companies) 47 to 45.

Rocket Lab gets two-launch deal with Japanese satellite company

Rocket Lab today announced that it has signed a two-launch deal with the Japanese satellite company Synspective, bringing to six total the number of Synspective satellites its Electron rocket will place in orbit.

Rocket Lab has been launching for Synspective since 2020 when the Company deployed the first satellite in Synspective’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) constellation, which is designed to deliver imagery that can detect millimetre-level changes to the Earth’s surface from space. Since that first mission, Rocket Lab has been the sole launch provider for Synspective’s StriX constellation to date, successfully deploying three StriX satellites across three dedicated Electron launches. Including the two new missions, Rocket Lab is now scheduled to launch three missions for Synspective beginning in late 2023 from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.

This deal illustrates Rocket Lab’s continuing strong position in the launch market, while simultaneously illustrating the lack of any Japanese presence. Japanese Synspective might prefer to work with a Japanese rocket, but none exists that can compete with Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab to attempt full recovery of first stage on next launch

In announcing the launch window, opening July 14th, for its next New Zealand launch, Rocket Lab also revealed that it will attempt the full recovery of the first stage after it splashes down softly in the ocean using parachutes.

Rocket Lab is also planning to conduct a marine recovery of Electron’s first stage as part of this mission. Rocket Lab’s recovery team will retrieve Electron using a customized vessel and transport the stage back to Rocket Lab’s production complex for analysis. Data from this recovered stage will inform Rocket Lab’s ongoing recovery and reuse program.

The company recently decided to forego any further attempts to snatch the first stage in the air before splashdown using a helicopter. Instead, it thinks it can recover the stage in good enough condition out of the water to use it or its engines again.

The launch itself will carry seven smallsats, four for NASA and three for two commercial companies.

Rocket Lab’s payload on its first suborbital test launch of its Electron rocket

Until today it was unclear whether the successful first suborbital launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket on June 17, 2023 carried a payload. Now we know it did:

The launch took place at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and demonstrated the Multi-Service Advanced Capability Hypersonic Test Bed, or MACH-TB, program’s first suborbital flight of a hypersonic payload.

MACH-TB is led by the Pentagon’s Test Resource Management Center and the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Crane Division. The team selected Leidos as the program’s prime integrator last September, and California-based space company Rocket Lab is one of 12 subcontractors supporting the effort.

It appears the Pentagon program that funded MACH-TB is a different program — from a different Pentagon office — from the one that is funding the next suborbital hypersonic test using Electron. Nor is this unusual for the military. The duplication of these Pentagon programs, with multiple bureaucracies, says a lot more about the utter waste and incompetence and corruption in DC than it does about hypersonic suborbital testing.

For Rocket Lab however this duplication is great news, as it provides the company at least two different customers for its suborbital rocket.

Rocket Lab completes first suborbital test launch of its Electron rocket

As part of its contract for providing the Defense Department with a testbed for hypersonic testing, Rocket Lab on June 17, 2023 successfully completed the first suborbital test launch of its Electron rocket.

The HASTE suborbital launch vehicle is derived from the Company’s Electron rocket but has a modified Kick Stage for hypersonic payload deployment, a larger payload capacity of up to 700 kg / 1,540 lbs, and options for tailored fairings to accommodate larger payloads, including air-breathing, ballistic re-entry, boost-glide, and space-based applications payloads. By leveraging the heritage of Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron – the world’s most frequently launched commercial small launch vehicle – HASTE offers true commercial testing capability at a fraction of the cost of current full-scale tests.

Because of its military nature, Rocket Lab’s press release was generally terse in providing details. Sources in the industry tell me that this launch was designed to prove out the required suborbital capabilities of Electron prior to the first hypersonic test flight. When that flight takes place, it will carry a hypersonic test vehicle built by another company, Hypersonix.

Rocket Lab with this launch demonstrated again the smart flexibility of the company. It only announced this suborbital concept for Electron in April. Only two months later it has test flown it. It is now ready to fly an actual hypersonic test flight, and waits only for the test vehicle to be provided by Hypersonix. The speed of this program leap-frogged Stratolaunch, which is also offering its Roc airplane and Talon hypersonic test vehicle to the military but started its project in late 2020 and is still not ready for flight.

Rocket Lab about to launch a secret mission

Rocket Lab is gearing up to launch a rocket from Wallops sometime between June 15th and June 20th but it will provide no live stream and no press access.

The article at the link then speculates that this launch might be the first military hypersonic test flight using a suborbital version of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

That launcher is called HASTE, short for “Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron.” As that name suggests, HASTE is derived from the workhorse Electron and is designed to help test technologies for hypersonic craft — highly maneuverable vehicles capable of flying at least five times the speed of sound.

HASTE can haul up to 1,540 pounds (700 kilograms) of payload aloft, whereas Electron can deliver a maximum of 660 pounds (300 kg) to low Earth orbit. The suborbital rocket also features a modified version of Electron’s “kick stage” specialized for the deployment of hypersonic payloads, Rocket Lab said in an April 17 statement that announced HASTE’s existence.

The suborbital rocket is scheduled to make its debut right about now, on a mission whose details are hard to come by, according to that statement.

If so, we will only find out some limited details after launch, based on what the military decides to release publicly.

Regardless, the HASTE project demonstrates the ability of Rocket Lab to quickly improvise in order to find new ways to make money from its existing assets. For its stockholders, it is another piece of evidence that the company is a good investment.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifts two more NASA hurricane monitoring satellites into orbit

Rocket Lab today successfully used its Electron rocket to place the last two of NASA’s four-satellite Tropics hurricane monitoring constellation into orbit.

The first launch occurred about two and a half weeks ago, on May 7, 2023. Both launches were originally contracted to Astra, but when that company discontinued operations of its Rocket-3 rocket, NASA turned to Rocket Lab.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

34 SpaceX
19 China
7 Russia
5 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 39 to 19 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 39 to 33. SpaceX by itself now trails the entire world, including American companies, 34 to 38.

Note that at this moment SpaceX and Rocket Lab are the only American companies that have launched. The established rocket companies, ULA and Northrop Grumman, have launches planned but none as yet, while two American companies have ceased operations, Astra (supposedly temporarily) and Virgin Orbit (permanently).

American freedom resulted in the competition in rocketry which has lowered costs but taken business from the established companies. Freedom has also caused the death of two companies, because the success that freedom brings also carries risks. Failure can happen, but the sum total of achievement is always greater than when competition is squelched.

Rocket Lab completes Photon transport spacecraft for Varda’s private returnable space capsule

The private rocket company Rocket Lab has now completed construction on the Photon transport spacecraft that the private company Varda has purchased to maneuver and then de-orbit its private returnable space capsule in which it plans to manufacture pharmaceuticals while in orbit and then return to Earth for sale.

Rocket Lab made the spacecraft at its Long Beach manufacturing site to provide power, communications, propulsion and attitude control to a capsule that will produce pharmaceutical products in microgravity. In addition to providing support during the in-space phase of Varda’s mission, the Photon will put Varda’s capsule carrying finished pharmaceuticals on a return trajectory to Earth.

This is the first of four Photon spacecraft that Varda has purchased from Rocket Lab. Varda appears to be attempting to continue the pharmaceutical work that McDonnell-Douglas did on the space shuttle, and was on the verge of flying a full-scale production mission for profit, when the Challenger accident occurred in 1986 and ended all further commercial work on the shuttle.

Rocket Lab successfully launches two NASA hurricane monitoring cubesats

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket today successfully placed NASA’s two Tropics hurricane monitoring cubesats into orbit, lifting off from New Zealand ((May 8th New Zealand time).

This is the first of two Rocket Lab launches to get the entire four-satellite Tropics constellation into orbit, with the second schedule for two weeks from now.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

29 SpaceX
16 China
6 Russia
4 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 33 to 16 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 33 to 28.

Rocket Lab to reuse previously flown engine on upcoming launch

Rocket Lab engineers, having tested a previously flown Rutherford engine numerous times after recovering it from a launch in May 2022, have now approved that engine for reflight, and are inserting into their Electron rocket assembly line for launch sometime in the third quarter of this year.

The company also revealed that it has now completely abandoned the use of a helicopter in first stage recovery, and will instead pick up all first stages after they have splashed down in the ocean.

Extensive analysis of returned stages shows that Electron withstands an ocean splashdown and engineers expect future complete stages to pass qualification and acceptance testing for re-flight with minimal refurbishment. As a result, Rocket Lab is moving forward with marine operations as the primary method of recovering Electron for re-flight. This is expected to take the number of Electron missions suitable for recovery from around 50% to between 60-70% of missions due to fewer weather constraints faced by marine recovery vs mid-air capture, while also reducing costs associated with helicopter operations.

Rocket Lab will assess the opportunities for flying a complete pre-flown first stage booster following the launch of the pre-flown Rutherford engine in the third quarter this year.

Rocket Lab is presently the only operational American company besides SpaceX that is aggressively pursuing reuse of its rocket. ULA says it wishes to recover and reuse the engines of its still-unflown Vulcan rocket, but development of this concept has been very slow. Many other new companies claim their rockets will be reusable, but none has yet even launched.

Rocket Lab introduces a suborbital version of its Electron rocket for hypersonic flight testing

Rocket Lab today announced the availability of a suborbital version of its Electron rocket, dubbed HASTE, designed to do frequent hypersonic flight tests, with its first commercial flight scheduled in the first half of this year.

HASTE is evolved from Rocket Lab’s flagship Electron launch vehicle, which has been providing reliable access to orbit since 2018 and has successfully deployed satellites for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office), DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the U.S. Space Force. HASTE employs the same innovative carbon composite structure and 3D printed Rutherford engines as Electron but has a modified Kick Stage for hypersonic payload deployment, a larger payload capacity of up to 700 kg / 1,540 lbs, and options for tailored fairings to accommodate larger payloads.

It appears that Rocket Lab is attempting to grab market share from Stratolaunch’s Roc/Talon hypersonic testbed, which is gearing up to do its own first hypersonic test flights this year.

Rocket Lab and SpaceX successfully launch

There were two launches since yesterday, both American, both launching commercial satellites.

First, Rocket Lab put two Black Sky commercial Earth observation smallsats into orbit, using its Electron rocket launching from New Zealand. This was Rocket Lab’s second launch in less than a week.

Next, SpaceX put 56 Starlink satellites into orbit, launching from Cape Canaveral. The Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage completed its 10th flight, landing successfully in a drone ship in the Atlantic.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

20 SpaceX
11 China
5 Russia
3 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 23 to 11 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 23 to 18. SpaceX in turn trails the entire world combined, including American companies, by only 20 to 21.

Rocket Lab and China launch satellites successfully

Both the American company Rocket Lab and China have successfully placed satellites in orbit in the past day.

First, Rocket Lab successfully placed two Earth observation satellites for the company Capella yesterday. This was also its second launch from Wallops Island in Virginia. The company made no attempt to recover the first stage.

Next, China today used its Long March 3B rocket to place its own Earth observation satellite into orbit from its Xichang spaceport, located in the country’s northeast but far from the ocean. No word on whether the rocket’s first stage and four strap-on boosters crashed near habitable areas.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

17 SpaceX
11 China
4 Russia
2 Rocket Lab

For the rest of the year, I will only list the leaders with each launch update. At this moment, American private enterprise leads China 19 to 11 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 19 to 17. SpaceX alone now trails the rest of the world combined, including American companies, 17 to 19.

These numbers will likely change later today, as SpaceX has two launches scheduled in just a few hours. One launch will place two communications satellites in orbit for the Luxembourg company SES. The other will launch another 52 Starlink satellites.

Rocket Lab might forgo use of a helicopter in recovering its Electron 1st stages

According to Rocket Lab’s CEO, Peter Beck, the company might abandon the use of a helicopter and the in air capture of the first stages of its Electron rocket 1st stages and instead simply fish them out of the water, refurbish them, and then reuse them.

In the second attempt last November, Rocket Lab called off the helicopter catch because of a momentary loss of telemetry from the booster. The company instead allow the stage to splash down in the ocean, where a boat recovered it and returned it to Rocket Lab’s facilities. “This turned out to be quite a happy turn of events,” he said on the call. “Electron survived an ocean recovery in remarkably good condition, and in a lot of cases its components actually pass requalification for flight.”

He said the company is planning an ocean recovery on an upcoming flight after incorporating additional waterproofing into the vehicle “Pending this outcome of testing and analysis of the stage, the mission may move us towards sticking with marine recovery altogether and introduce significant savings to the whole operation.”

As Elon Musk has said, “The best part is no part.” It appears that by having the stage come down softly and controlled by parachutes it is possible to get it out of the water fast, without much damage. If the first stage can then be reflown then it makes sense not to bother with the helicopter recovery.

Beck also indicated during his phone presentation that the company is still targeting fifteen launches in 2023, and that the demand for launches has allowed the company to maintain its launch prices, with the prospect of raising them soon.

Rocket Lab successfully completes first launch from the U.S.

Using its Electron rocket, Rocket Lab yesterday placed three smallsats into orbit, launching for the first time from Wallops Island in Virginia.

The company now has three launchpads, one in Wallops and two in New Zealand. Expect its launch pace in 2023 to ramp up to, at a minimum, once per month.

The 2023 launch race:

5 China
5 SpaceX
1 Rocket Lab

In the national rankings, the U.S. leads China, 6 to 5. No one else has yet launched, though Japan plans a launch today.

Rocket Lab reschedules first Wallops launch to January

Having had to scrub the launch on December 18th and December 19th due of weather, Rocket Lab has now officially rescheduled its first Wallops launch to January.

The move of the planned launch window from December 2022 to early 2023 was driven by weather and the additional time that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at Wallops and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required to complete essential regulatory documentation for launch. The delay in documentation left only two days in the originally scheduled 14-day launch window and both of those final remaining days were unsuitable for launch due to bad weather. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport within NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility is now closed for launch activity for the remainder of the December due to holiday airspace restrictions, preventing further launch attempts in 2022.

Rocket Lab originally wanted to launch from Wallops two years ago, but has been repeatedly stymied by government red tape. At that time the company wanted to use the software of its own flight termination system, a system that it has successfully used in New Zealand more than two dozen times, including several times where launch failures actually required the system to destroy the rocket. NASA said no, and instead insisted on spending two years apparently creating its own software which also requires the added presence of NASA officials during launch.

Weather forces Rocket Lab to scrub first launch from Wallops

High altitude winds yesterday forced Rocket Lab to scrub its first Electron launch attempt from Wallops Island in Virginia yesterday.

The weather also forced the company to cancel a launch attempt today.

Teams are now evaluating the next possible launch window while coordinating with holiday travel airspace restrictions. The flight will lift off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-2 (LC-2) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

This could mean that Rocket Lab will not be able to launch before the end of the year. The company very much wishes to do this, however, as it would give it ten launches in 2022, as well as a launch pace of one per month for most of the year.

This first launch from Wallops is also important, as it would give Rocket Lab three launchpads, including one in the U.S. for launching classified military payloads. It had hoped to launch from Wallops two years ago, but red tape at NASA delayed the launch.

Rocket Lab wins launch contract abandoned by Astra

NASA yesterday awarded Rocket Lab the contract to put its constellation of TROPICS satellites into orbit, on two different launches.

This contract replaces Astra as the launch provider, which has abandoned launches while it develops a new rocket.

Astra’s contract, valued at $7.95 million, was for three launches on its Rocket 3.3 vehicle – a rocket that Astra later announced would be discontinued, in favor of a larger and more powerful Rocket 4.

But Rocket 4 is still under development – and may not be ready to launch until 2024. NASA decided not to wait that long, and said in September that it would modify the TROPICS launch contract with Astra for “comparable scientific payloads” on the new rocket.

Moreover, the launches will occur at Wallops Island, strengthening Rocket Lab’s presence there. The company will attempt its first launch there in early December, a launch delayed for two years because of holdups created by NASA’s bureaucracy. With this new contract, NASA’s management will now have an incentive to speed use of Wallops by Rocket Lab, not slow it down.

CAPSTONE enters its planned lunar orbit

After experiencing serious tumbling shortly after launch, engineers have successfully put the technology test smallsat CAPSTONE into its planned lunar orbit (the same to be used by NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station), where it will spend at least six months gathering data.

In addition to studying this unique orbit, CAPSTONE’s mission also includes two technology demonstrations that could be used by future spacecraft. The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System, or CAPS, is a navigational software developed by Advanced Space that would allow spacecraft operating near the Moon to determine their position in space without relying exclusively on tracking from Earth. CAPSTONE will demonstrate this technology by communicating directly with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in orbit around the Moon since 2009. CAPSTONE will also demonstrate one-way ranging using a chip-scale atomic clock, which could allow spacecraft to determine their position in space without the need for a dedicated downlink to ground stations.

CAPSTONE is also demonstrating a third technology as well as the use of capitalism in space. The third technology is demonstrating the viability of using a tiny inexpensive smallsat for these kinds of interplanetary missions. The capitalism is that CAPSTONE was built by a private company, Terran Orbital, not NASA, and is being operated by another private company, Advanced Space, not NASA. It was also launched by a private company, Rocket Lab, not NASA. All three have proved or are proving that it is faster and cheaper for the government to merely act as the customer to private enterprise, rather than being the builder/operator and boss.

Rocket Lab sets date for 1st launch from Wallops

On the same day it won a contract to build a control center for Globalstar’s satellite constellation, Rocket Lab also set December 7, 2022 as the target date for its first Electron launch from Wallops Island in Virginia.

The company had originally hoped to launch from Wallops two years ago, but delays caused by NASA’s bureaucracy in approving the flight termination software made that impossible.

With two operating launchpads, one in New Zealand and one in the U.S., Rocket Lab should now be able to ramp up its launch pace, assuming it has the customers. So far this year the company has done about one launch per month.

Rocket Lab leases engine test facility at Stennis

Rocket Lab has finalized a 10-year lease for using one of the engine test facilities at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for developing the Archimedes rocket engine for its new Neutron rocket.

With the new agreement, the A-3 Test Stand and about 24 surrounding acres at Stennis will be incorporated into the Archimedes Test Complex. Archimedes is Rocket Lab’s new liquid oxygen and liquid methane rocket engine that will power its large, reusable Neutron rocket.

Rocket Lab will have exclusive access to use and develop the A-3 Test Stand area, including associated propellant barge docks and buildings. The initial 10-year agreement includes an option to extend an additional 10 years.

The Mississippi Development Authority is providing assistance for Rocket Lab to develop the new site and to relocate and install needed equipment.

With this agreement Rocket Lab is clearly moving forward aggressively in its project to build a new rocket that can complete head-to-head with SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

Rocket Lab successfully launches but fails to catch first stage

Rocket Lab today used its Electron rocket to successfully launch a Swedish atmospheric research satellite.

The attempt to catch the first stage with a helicopter as the stage came back to Earth on parachutes failed. Based on the live stream, the failure appears unrelated to the helicopter, which never even made an attempt to capture. Nor did the video from the copter ever show the stage in view. A later update explained that the helicopter had lost telemetry from the stage, and for safety reasons would not attempt a capture without that information.

The company will still recover the stage from the ocean and test its engines. An engine from a previous ocean recovery actually passed all subsequent engine tests, suggesting it could even be reused on a launch.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

51 SpaceX
47 China
19 Russia
9 Rocket Lab
7 ULA

American private enterprise now leads China 72 to 47 in the national rankings, though it still trails the rest of the world combined 75 to 72.

Watching Rocket Lab’s launch and attempt to recover its first stage

In its scheduled launch today, Rocket Lab will attempt to recover the first stage of its Electron rocket, using a helicopter to snatch its parachute as it descends slowly over the ocean. This will the second attempt to do so, the first time failing after capture when the helicopter pilot decided to release the stage due to unexpected stresses and vibrations.

I have embedded the live stream below. The launch is presently scheduled for around 10:30 am (Pacific).
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