ORLANDO, Fla. — Rocket Lab launched the first four satellites for space situational awareness (SSA) company NorthStar Earth and Space Jan. 31 in another test for the company’s efforts to recover and eventually reuse Electron boosters.
The Electron lifted off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 1:34 a.m. Eastern on a mission called “Four of a Kind” by the company. It deployed its payload of four satellites for NorthStar Earth and Space into a sun-synchronous orbit at 530 kilometers.
The satellites are 16U cubesats built by Spire for NorthStar, with Exolaunch providing mission integration services. They are equipped with sensors to enable them to track objects as small as five centimeters across in low Earth orbit and 40 centimeters across in geostationary orbit.
The four satellites are the first in an initial constellation of 12 spacecraft, with the next eight to be launched on two future Electron missions by 2026. NorthStar’s contract with Spire includes options for up to 18 additional spacecraft.
NorthStar, which raised $15 million in December and $105 million overall, says that when the 12 satellites are in service they will be able to monitor 60% of the sky at any given time, increasing to 100% when combined with other sensors. “NorthStar has patiently invested in the realization of an unprecedented turnkey SSA service designed to outperform the challenges of space congestion and security in space that are mounting exponentially every day,” Stewart Bain, chief executive of NorthStar, said in a Jan. 8 statement.
That patience was tested by launch delays. The four satellites were scheduled to launch last year on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system, but that company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2023 and was later liquidated. NorthStar then signed a contract with Rocket Lab for a launch in the fall of 2023, only to be delayed when an Electron launch failed in September.
This launch, called “Four of a Kind” by Rocket Lab, was the first of the year for the company. It was scheduled for mid-January but delayed by additional pre-launch checkouts and poor weather conditions. The company said in a November earnings call that it had a manifest of 22 Electron launches for 2024, including two of HASTE, a version used for suborbital missions. Rocket Lab conducted 10 Electron launches in 2023.
Rocket Lab also used the launch to test its ability to recover Electron boosters. The booster for this flight descended under a parachute and splashed down 17 minutes after liftoff. A recovery ship arrived shortly after splashdown to pick up the booster and return it to port.
The company plans to eventually reuse the boosters, having already launched a booster with a previously flown Rutherford engine in August 2023. Company officials said then that reusing an engine was one the final steps before full booster reuse.
“The success of today’s mission to deliver Spire and NorthStar to orbit, and the completion of our secondary mission to return Electron to Earth after launch, has been a fantastic start of what is set to be Rocket Lab’s busiest year ever,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement.