NRO satellite upgrades delay the second of two back-to-back Rocket Lab launches

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The launch of NROL-199 was rescheduled to Aug. 2 to allow the NRO to perform required payload software upgrades

Updated Aug. 2: The launch of NROL-199 was scrubbed Aug. 2 due to high ground winds at the launch site. New launch date to be announced.

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab and the National Reconnaissance Office had hoped to launch two missions within 10 days. The first one, NROL-162, lifted off July 13 but the second one, NROL-199, required payload software upgrades and was not ready to launch as planned on July 22. The mission is now projected to launch Aug. 2 on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from the company’s launch site in New Zealand.

The ability to launch two NRO missions on a short timeline is an opportunity for Rocket Lab to demonstrate that space launch can be made more nimble, but the NROL-199 delay illustrates the challenges of responsive launch, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO Peter Beck told SpaceNews July 28.

As soon as the NROL-199 payload upgrades were completed, the mission was rescheduled relatively quickly as Rocket Lab operates its own launch complex. But Beck’s point is that all the talk about responsive launch often ignores the reality that if satellites aren’t ready on time, they can’t take advantage of rapid launch capabilities 

Rocket Lab earlier this month announced a responsive space program aimed at commercial and government satellite operators that want to be able to launch payloads on short notice. Beck said the concept of responsive space is not new but how to actually implement it continues to be a topic of discussion. 

The U.S. military is becoming more interested in responsive launch as something it might need in a future conflict if enemies attack U.S. systems with anti-satellite weapons. Amid these concerns, Congress has added more than $100 million to the defense budget in recent years for responsive space launch and plans to add even more. 

Beck called it “a little bit of a folly that when someone talks about responsive space, everybody turns to the rocket.” The rapid turnaround of launch vehicles is a problem that has been solved, he said. “If there was a launch needed in a very short timeframe, we can do that tomorrow. What’s not solved is the spacecraft. If you need to put a particular sensor or a particular capability on orbit, how do you do that in a way that isn’t measured in months?”

Rocket Lab believes the answer to responsive space services is to offer a complete end-to-end package, including the satellite and the launch. The company in 2019 started manufacturing Photon small satellites in Huntington Beach, California. 

“That’s one of the reasons why we started vertically integrating,” said Beck. “We needed some reaction wheels for a satellite and it was a nine-month lead time.” Reaction wheels are components used for spacecraft attitude control. Rocket Lab in 2020 acquired manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary “so we can ensure that reaction wheels are on the shelf for us at all times.”

Another key acquisition was SolAero, a major manufacturer of solar power systems for spacecraft. When producing a satellite, said Beck, the solar power unit is “generally the thing you want first, and it’s generally a very long lead item.”

“What we’re really doing here is positioning ourselves for a customer to come to us and say, ‘Hey, I need this capability,’” Beck said. “And it can be a defense customer, or it can be a commercial customer.”

There was a time when launching a mission 18 months after getting a customer order was considered highly responsive but the world is changing fast, he said. “I mean, look how quickly Ukraine and Russia escalated. You don’t have 18 months, we’re talking weeks to maybe a small number of months before you need to actually respond with a capability.”

The other piece is the licensing of a space mission, which can set back any schedule, Beck noted. “The way you get around that is you have a predetermined spacecraft that you know you’re launching and you can have it pre-licensed,” he added. “It’s a solvable problem. It just requires maintaining some level of readiness.”

Small satellite launcher Virgin Orbit, which launches rockets from a carrier aircraft, argues that its LauncherOne service is more responsive than vertical launchers because an aircraft can take off from any runway and does not require fixed launch infrastructure. 

Beck said there are both pluses and minuses to any type of launch setup. “I don’t necessarily want to throw shade at our competitors,” he said. But launching a space mission from an airport can be just as challenging as from a conventional pad. “Having trailers and trailers of stuff sitting in an airport is no different to having trailers and trailers of stuff sitting at a launch site.”

Not many companies have demonstrated they can provide responsive access to space, Beck said. “It’s something that’s easy to talk about, but difficult to do.”