Wallops LC-2
An aerial view of Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 2 (right) under construction on Wallops Island adjacent to the existing launch pad for Northrop Grumman's Antares rocket. Credit: Rocket Lab

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force will be the first customer for a Rocket Lab Electron launching in 2020 from a new launch site in Virginia, the company announced Dec. 12.

Rocket Lab formally opened Launch Complex (LC) 2, a launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia, adjacent to the pad used by Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket. The launch site, similar to the company’s existing Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, is specifically designed for U.S. government customers who prefer to launch from American soil and also want responsive launch capabilities.

“We’ve certainly made a number of improvements to the pad, but the pads look identical,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview. “That’s part of the reason why we were able to build the site so quickly.” Construction of the pad started in February after a groundbreaking ceremony in October 2018.

The launch pad does have some additional features to support U.S. national security customers, like increased security, he said. A separate integration facility down the road from the pad can support multiple Electron rockets with separate clean rooms for payload processing, part of efforts to be able to handle launches on short notice. The company estimates the site will support a staff of about 30 employees from engineering to office administration.

Rocket Lab announced that the first customer to launch on an Electron from LC-2 will be the U.S. Air Force, which will fly a microsatellite mission called STP-27RM for the service’s Space Test Program in the second quarter of 2020. That program provides flight opportunities for advanced technologies seeking demonstrations in space.

“We look forward to Rocket Lab successfully launching the STP-27RM mission from Launch Complex 2 next spring, which will test new capabilities that we will need in the future,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise, in a statement.

Air Force Lt. Col. Meagan Thrush, program element monitor for space launch and control, said at a press conference that the payload is a research and development satellite called Monolith. That satellite, developed by the Air Force Research Lab, will examine the ability of small satellites to support “large aperture space weather payloads,” she said.

While Rocket Lab says LC-2 is complete, some final testing is planned prior to that first launch. “The next big step is to put a rocket on the pad and then do all the interface testing between the launch vehicle and the pad,” Beck said.

LC-2 is designed to handle up to 12 launches per year. Beck said that once they get that first launch done next week and handle any “teething issues” with the new pad, they’ll be ready to support additional launches “as customers require.” He expected that the company will, between the two launch sites, perform at least one launch a month in 2020, double the rate of six launches the company conducted in 2019.

Another major effort for Rocket Lab in the next year will be efforts to recover and reuse the Electron’s first stage. The company achieved a milestone in that effort in Electron’s most recent launch Dec. 6, controlling the rocket’s first stage after stage separation all the way down to the ocean surface.

“It was awesome. It was fantastic,” he said of the reentry test, which required keeping the stage in a narrow corridor as it reentered and flew through a period of deceleration the company has dubbed “the wall.” The stage, he said, remained in one piece all the way to ocean impact.

“It puts us light-years ahead of where we’re expecting to be, and really accelerates our recovery efforts,” he said.

Beck said the company will duplicate the test on the company’s next launch, scheduled for as soon as January from LC-1 in New Zealand. He said that the company should be able to provide more live video during the stage’s reentry on that launch than on last week’s mission, where the company cut off the video feed in order to ensure it received engineering data with the available bandwidth.

After that, he said the company will “go quiet” for a few months to undertake another block upgrade of the rocket to make additional changes for recovering the stage, such as the inclusion of parachutes. “The next step is to splash it down into the water gently, and then the step after that is to recover it in mid-air with a helicopter,” he said.

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...