Rocket Lab launches BlackSky satellites as it prepares for mid-air booster recovery

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WASHINGTON — A Rocket Lab Electron launched another pair of imaging satellites for BlackSky April 2 as the company gears up to attempt recovery of the rocket’s first stage.

The Electron lifted off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 8:41 a.m. Eastern. The rocket’s upper stage deployed a kick stage carrying two BlackSky satellites into orbit nearly 10 minutes later. The kick stage, after a burn of its Curie engine, released the satellites into a 430-kilometer orbit nearly an hour after liftoff.

The launch was the latest in a series of Electron launches of BlackSky satellites arranged by Spaceflight. That deal included launches of pairs of BlackSky satellites in November and December 2021 as well as a failed Electron launch in May 2021.

Rocket Lab said March 24 that the launch, the second Electron flight of the year, was previously scheduled for March but postponed by weather. Because of the delay of the launch, revenue from the launch would be recognized in its fiscal second quarter rather than its first. The company updated its revenue projection for the first quarter from $42–47 million to approximately $40 million.

BlackSky said in December it would launch two to four satellites this year, joining the 12 it had in orbit at the time. The company is shifting its development focus to a new Gen 3 series of satellites with improved resolution, with the first of those satellites scheduled to launch in 2023.

Rocket Lab did not attempt to recover the first stage of the Electron after this launch. The company said in November that, after three launches where it recovered Electron boosters after splashing down in the ocean, it was ready to attempt a midair recovery of a booster by catching it with a helicopter, the final step before reusing those boosters.

The company has not announced when that recovery will take place, but hinted it would take place soon. “The first one that we’ll catch in the air is coming up very soon,” said Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of global launch services at Rocket Lab, during a panel session at the Satellite 2022 conference March 22. “Then we’re going to examine that and do any refurb that is necessary, and try to relaunch that as soon as it’s ready, hopefully this year.”

He added that the company has a “full manifest” of Electron launches this year, including the first from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia, with a goal of launching on average once per month. “We’re keeping pace with the market. We’re trying not to get too far ahead.”