Electron Flight 8 launch
A Rocket Lab Electron rocket lifts off Aug. 19 carrying four smallsats. Credit: Rocket Lab webcast

Updated 9:15 a.m. Eastern after payload deployment.

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab launched four small satellites Aug. 19 on a mission that also brings the company one step closer to reusing the first stage of its Electron rockets.

The Electron rocket lifted off from the company’s launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 8:12 a.m. Eastern, three days after high winds scrubbed a previous launch attempt. The four satellites carried on the rocket’s Curie kick stage deployed successfully about 53 minutes after liftoff into a circular orbit 540 kilometers high at an inclination of 45 degrees.

Three of the four satellites on the mission, dubbed “Look Ma, No Hands,” were provided by Spaceflight, the Seattle-based rideshare aggregator. The largest is Global-4, the fourth in a series of high-resolution imaging satellites for BlackSky. This follows Global-3, which launched on the previous Electron mission, a dedicated rideshare mission for Spaceflight, June 29.

The other two satellites are six-unit cubesats for U.S. Air Force Space Command. The Pearl White cubesats, build by Tiger Innovations Inc., will test various technologies for potential use on future spacecraft.

The fourth satellite, whose launch was arranged separately, is a six-unit cubesat for French company UnseenLabs. The satellite, built by Danish company GomSpace, is the first in a constellation that will provide maritime surveillance services that the company says is not dependent on tracking Automatic Identification System signals.

The launch is the fourth this year for the Electron and the eighth overall for the small launch vehicle. The company is seeking to achieve a monthly launch cadence by the end of this year, but says that demand for launches is growing even faster.

That demand led the company to pursue plans, announced Aug. 6, to attempt to recover and reuse the Electron’s first stage. “At the moment we just can’t build enough rockets,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview prior to the announcement.

As part of that effort, this launch carried a recorder to collect data during the first stage’s reentry. “It basically rides the stage in almost like a cowboy all the way down,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if the stage breaks up or not. It’s designed to survive the torturous environment.”

Beck said collecting that data will be a “critical milestone” towards recovering the first stage, which involves surviving what he described as the “wall” of sudden deceleration without the use of propulsion to help slow it down. The data will inform a block upgrade of the Electron starting with the rocket’s tenth flight that will include modifications to allow the first stage to survive reentry.

Beck said that, in a best-case scenario, the company could recover a first stage before the end of the year, initially allowing it to splash down in the ocean. Eventually, Rocket Lab plans to recover the first stage in midair using a helicopter equipped with a “skyhook” attachment.

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...