Updated 10:30 p.m. Eastern with comments from Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck.
WASHINGTON – Rocket Lab announced Jan. 20 that the second launch of its Electron small rocket was a success, reaching orbit and deploying three cubesats.
The Electron lifted off from the company’s launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 8:43 p.m. Eastern (2:43 p.m. local time Jan. 21) on the second day of a nine-day launch window for the mission. A launch attempt a day earlier was scrubbed by a combination of boats in restricted waters off the launch site and a technical issue with the rocket.
The rocket, powered by nine Rutherford liquid oxygen and kerosene engines in its first stage, lifted off the pad after a problem-free countdown. The first stage shut down and separated two and a half minutes after launch, after which the second stage, with its single Rutherford engine, ignited for a burn lasting more than five a half minutes.
As the second stage shut down, launch controllers declared that the vehicle was in orbit. The stage subsequently released its three payloads, a Dove cubesat for Planet and two Lemur-2 cubesats for Spire. Planet later confirmed that its cubesat was in orbit and communicating following the launch.
“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said in an interview shortly after the launch. “It puts us into a really good position to really deliver on what we said many years ago, that we’re here to open up space for business.”
Beck said the company will spend some time to review the telemetry from the mission, but an initial look indicated that the vehicle performed as planned, releasing the three cubesats into elliptical orbits of 300 by 500 kilometers. “We inserted well inside our commercial accuracy for apogee, perigee and inclination,” he said.
The launch was the first for the Electron after the vehicle’s inaugural flight in May 2017 failed to reach orbit. The company said that the rocket worked as planned on that mission, but a telemetry problem triggered range safety systems about four minutes after liftoff, ending the mission.
In an interview earlier this month, Beck said that if the second launch was successful, the company would move ahead into commercial service with the rocket. Beck said in the post-launch interview that was still the case, but didn’t set a date for the next mission beyond rolling the vehicle out at the launch pad “in the coming months.” The customer for that launch, if it is a commercial mission, has not been announced.
Beck said the company now plans to ramp up its flight rate as it moves into commercial operations, with a goal of one launch per month by the end of the year. “Since the last flight we’ve spent a lot on preparing the business to scale,” he said, including establishing a factory in California that now produces a “flight set” of Rutherford engines every month. The Electron itself is assembled in New Zealand, where the U.S.-headquartered company has the bulk of its operations.
“We’ve spent a lot of time preparing for when we feel like the vehicle is solid,” he said. “Now, it’s just a matter of pushing them through.”
Electron is part of a new generation of small launch vehicles developed in recent years to serve the growing small satellite market. Electron is designed to place up to 150 kilograms into a sun-synchronous orbit, and its customers include Planet and Spire, as well as NASA and Moon Express.
“It’s a great day, obviously, for Rocket Lab, but also for the industry,” Beck said. “We really are stepping into a new era for the industry.”