Rocket Lab launches cubesats for NASA

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WASHINGTON — A Rocket Lab Electron rocket successfully launched a group of cubesats Dec. 16 on a mission funded by NASA as the company looks ahead to more frequent launches in the next year.

The Electron rocket lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 1:33 a.m. Eastern. The rocket placed a kick stage containing the 13 satellites into orbit nine minutes after launch. About 40 minutes, later, the kick stage ignited for a 90-second burn, after which the satellites were placed into 500-kilometer circular orbits at an inclination of 85 degrees.

“All payloads deployed!! Perfect mission,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, tweeted after the satellites were deployed.

NASA purchased the launch for its CubeSat Launch Initiative program, which provides launches for cubesats developed by academic institutions and NASA centers. This particular flight, known as Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 19, features three satellites built by NASA centers, six by universities and one by a charter school in Idaho.

The satellites range from those built primarily to give students experience in satellite development to those testing advanced technologies. RSat, developed at the U.S. Naval Academy, will test robotic arms planned for future satellite-servicing spacecraft. CubeSat, from the University of Illinois, will test soil sail technology. The Advanced Electrical Bus, or ALBus, satellite from NASA’s Glenn Research Center will demonstrate new power systems and solar array deployment technologies.

The launch carried three satellites in addition to the 10 that were part of ELaNa-19. Two of the satellites, collectively known as AeroCube 11, were developed by the Aerospace Corporation to test advanced imaging technologies. The third, Space-Based High Frequency Testbed 2, was developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to demonstrate using high-frequency radio signals to study the ionosphere.

NASA awarded Rocket Lab a contract for the launch in October 2015 through its Venture Class Launch Services program, an effort to develop dedicated launch services for cubesats and other smallsats. Previous ELaNa missions all used secondary payload, or rideshare, accommodations on NASA and other government launches, reducing the control they had over schedule and orbit.

“Matching ELaNa-19 with the Electron rocket gives these advanced scientific and educational satellites first-class tickets to space while providing valuable insight for potential NASA missions in the future,” said Justin Treptow, NASA ELaNa-19 mission manager, prior to the launch.

NASA also awarded Venture Class Launch Services contracts in 2015 to Firefly Space Systems and Virgin Galactic. Firefly lost its contract when the company went through bankruptcy, reemerging as Firefly Aerospace.

Virgin Orbit, the company spun off from Virgin Galactic to develop and operate the LauncherOne air-launch system, is nearing its first launch. The NASA contract will be flown on the second LauncherOne flight, on a mission called ELaNa-20 scheduled no earlier than March 2019. That mission will carry 11 cubesats for universities and NASA’s Ames Research Center.

This launch was the third for Rocket Lab this year and second in a little more than one month. The company called this launch “This One’s for Pickering” in honor of the late William Pickering, the New Zealand-born scientist who served as director of JPL from 1954 to 1976.

The company said in a post-launch statement that its next Electron “will be on the pad” in January, but didn’t identify the customer. Company officials have previously said they expect to increase their launch cadence in 2019, flying missions at a rate of at least once per month. The company recently opened a factory in Auckland, New Zealand, designed to support the production of one Electron rocket per week.

“Regular and reliable launch is now a reality for small satellites. The wait is over,” Beck said in the statement. “We’re providing small satellite customers with more control than they’ve ever had, enabling them to launch on their own schedule, to precise orbits, as frequently as they need to.”

Rocket Lab announced a $140 million Series E round Nov. 15 that will help support that increased launch rate. The funding will support, among other efforts, construction of additional launch pads at Launch Complex 1 and the new Launch Complex 2 the company announced in October at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia.

“This funding also enables the continued aggressive scale-up of Electron production to support our targeted weekly flight rate,” Beck said in a statement then about the new funding round. “It will also see us build additional launch pads and begin work on three major new R&D programs.” The company said it will disclose details about those unspecified research and development efforts “in the new year.”