WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab launched a pair of BlackSky imaging satellites March 24 on a launch that was also a test of its ability to recover and reuse boosters.
The Electron rocket lifted off at 5:14 a.m. Eastern from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Weather postponed the launch two days, while concerns about an ongoing geomagnetic storm caused the launch to slip by nearly 90 minutes.
The rocket’s kick stage deployed its payload of two Gen-2 imaging satellites for BlackSky about 55 minutes after liftoff. The satellites were placed in circular orbits at an altitude of about 450 kilometers and an inclination of 42 degrees.
The launch was the third this year for Rocket Lab and second in as many weeks, after an Electron launch from Virginia carrying two Capella Space radar satellites March 16. The company projects conducting up to 15 Electron launches this year.
On this launch, Rocket Lab planned to have the rocket’s first stage splash down in the ocean, where it would be recovered by a ship. During the launch webcast, the company confirmed that the stage deployed its parachute and splashed down, but had not provided an update on recovery efforts.
The company will use this mission to see if boosters that do splash down can be refurbished for reuse. If that is the case, the company will do away with earlier plans to perform mid-air recoveries of boosters using a helicopter, which the company unsuccessfully attempted on two launches last year.
“Pending this outcome of testing and analysis of the stage, the mission may move us towards sticking with marine recovery altogether and introduce significant savings to the whole operation,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said during a Feb. 28 earnings call.
That would save money involved with helicopter recoveries, but he suggested that would be offset by additional work to waterproof the booster and refurbish it. However, doing away with the helicopter would allow the company to recover the booster on up to 70% of its launches, versus 50% with the helicopter. “So, financially it’s kind of the same, but we get to actually reuse more vehicles,” he said on the call.
For BlackSky, the launch placed into orbit likely the last of its Gen-2 series of imaging satellites. The satellites will replace two of the company’s first satellites launched in 2018 and nearing the end of their lives, according to Brian O’Toole, chief executive of BlackSky, in a March 7 earnings call.
“Those, we expect, will be our last two Gen-2s,” he said. The company does have some spare satellites, he noted, but the company has not decided whether they will launch any of them.
BlackSky is moving on to its Gen-3 series of satellites, which will provide imagery with a resolution as sharp as 50 centimeters. O’Toole said on the earnings call that BlackSky now expects to start launching those satellites in 2024.
BlackSky reported earnings of $65.4 million in 2022, an increase of 92% over 2021, and projected revenues of $90–96 million in 2023. The company, though, had an operating loss of $86.5 million for the year.
The company, which ended the year with $75 million of cash and cash equivalents on hand, announced at the same time it reported its financial results that it raised $29.5 million in a private placement. “It gives us sufficient capital for the foreseeable future,” Henry Dubois, chief financial officer of BlackSky, said on the earnings call.
He noted the company projected positive adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) in the fourth quarter of 2023. “So, we believe that we’re in good shape to get our Gen-3s up.”