WASHINGTON — A Rocket Lab Electron rocket placed seven smallsats for three customers into orbit July 17 on a launch that also brought the company a step closer to reusing the rocket’s booster.

The Electron lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 9:27 p.m. Eastern. The launch was scheduled for July 14 but postponed as the company made final preparations to both launch the rocket and recover the booster.

After an initial burn of the rocket’s kick stage, it deployed four NASA Starling 6U cubesats and two Spire 3U cubesats into a 575-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. After two more burns, the kick stage deployed the final payload, Telesat’s LEO 3 satellite, into a 1,000-kilometer orbit an hour and 45 minutes after liftoff.

The four Starling satellites will test the ability of spacecraft to operate autonomously as a swarm, flying in formation and maneuvering without commands from the ground. The two Spire satellites will join the company’s constellation of more than 100 spacecraft, carrying radio occultation payloads to collect weather data.

LEO 3, the largest spacecraft on the launch, was built by the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory for Telesat. It will allow the Canadian satellite operator to continue tests for its future Lightspeed constellation it had been performing with another prototype satellite that is nearing the end of its life.

The “Baby Come Back” mission also offered Rocket Lab another opportunity to test its efforts to recover and reuse the rocket’s first stage. The company made several modifications to the rocket and its recovery technique as it switched from earlier plans to capture the falling boosters in mid-air to allowing them to splash down in the ocean. The company’s webcast showed the booster retrieved by a ship shortly before deployment of the final satellite.

“With this mission we’ve made big strides toward reusability with Electron and we are now closer than ever to relaunching a booster for the first time,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement. The company added that the recovered booster was in “great condition.”

Beck, in an interview last week, declined to give a timeline for being able to reuse a booster beyond stating that the company will refly a Rutherford engine on an Electron launch later this year. During the company’s launch webcast, Wayne McIntosh, team lead for Electron reusability at Rocket Lab, suggested several more flight tests were planned before the company would consider reuse.

“We’re introducing minor changes for flight 39. Forty-one will have a few more. Forty-five will be our ‘golden child,’ which is going to have all our sealing changes, and this is going to enable us to disposition the vehicle accurately for reuse,” he said. This launch was the 39th flight of an Electron.

The Electron booster descending under parachute after launch July 17. Credit: Rocket Lab

Attracting defectors

The launch was the seventh this year for Rocket Lab, which includes six orbital launches and a launch last month of its suborbital variant, Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron (HASTE), from Virginia.

Beck said in the interview that the company was maintaining earlier projections of up to 15 Electron launches this year, which includes orbital missions and HASTE flights. The big challenge for the company’s flight rate, he said, has been customer readiness.

“We would have liked to see more launches by now,” he said. “It’s fair to say we have a very busy season coming up here as customers push to right a little bit.”

Rocket Lab is also seeing the effects of other changes in the market, such as the bankruptcy of Virgin Orbit. NorthStar Earth and Space, which had planned to launch its first space situational awareness satellites this summer with Virgin Orbit, signed a contract with Rocket Lab June 22 to launch its first four satellites this fall on an Electron.

Beck said Rocket Lab has seen interest from customers who had previously planned to launch with other providers. The NASA Starling satellites, for example, were originally manifested to launch on Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket.

“We’ve seen defections from all of the aspirational launch providers,” he said, more this year than in prior years. That stems from delays by those companies as well as concerns about customers about being on an early flight. “The industry is shaking out.”

“When we’re all young and growing up, we all had equal mission risk because we all had single-digit numbers of launches, and it was a level playing field,” he said. “I think it’s very difficult now to take that extra risk for the delta in cost.”

Rocket Lab said its next Electron launch will take place by the end of the month, and that it will release details about the mission in the near future.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...