PARIS — Rocket Lab successfully launched a Japanese radar imaging satellite Sept. 15 as the company prepares for another attempt to recover and reuse a booster.
An Electron rocket lifted off from Pad B at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 4:38 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s kick stage deployed its payload, the StriX-1 satellite for Japanese company Synspective, into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 563 kilometers about an hour later.
The satellite is the third synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellite launched for Synspective, all on Electron rockets. StriX-1 is the first “pre-commercial” satellite after two demonstration satellites as the company prepares to build out a constellation of up to 30 SAR satellites by 2026. StriX-1 features improvements to its batteries and communications system to enable it to collect more imagery.
The launch was the seventh Electron mission of the year and the 30th overall for the company. StriX-1 was the 150th satellite placed in orbit over those Electron missions.
Rocket Lab did not attempt to recover the Electron first stage. The last attempt to do so was on a launch in May, when a helicopter briefly grappled the stage as it descended under a parachute but had to let it go because of unanticipated loads on the helicopter. The booster was instead recovered from the ocean after splashing down. During the webcast of the StriX-1 launch, the company said it would make another midair recovery attempt later this year.
Rocket Lab has continued work to prepare reusing boosters. The company announced Sept. 1 it test-fired a Rutherford engine from the booster recovered from the May launch, demonstrating that it worked with only “minimal” refurbishment after its first flight.
“If we can achieve this high level of performance from engine components recovered from the ocean, then I’m optimistic and incredibly excited about what we can do when we bring back dry engines under a helicopter next time,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement.
Others in the small launch vehicle industry remain more skeptical about the benefits of reusability for such rockets. “Reusability, in my mind, always pops up as something extremely fancy and attractive, and also there is obviously the appeal of something more environmentally friendly,” said Giulio Ranzo, chief executive of Avio, manufacturer of the Vega, during a panel at World Satellite Business Week Sept. 13.
He argued that reusability made sense primarily for larger launch vehicles with a high flight rate. “The smaller the launcher and the lower the flight rate, the more it becomes useless,” he said. “I do not see, technically, how on a 200-kilogram-performance launcher, reusability would be very convenient, especially if the flight rate tends to be something like four or five launches a year.”
“Reusability is something that is going to be looked at,” said Jason Mello, president of Firefly Space Transport Services, a subsidiary of Firefly Aerospace. That includes both for the company’s Alpha vehicle, about to make its second flight, as well as the future Medium Launch Vehicle it will develop with Northrop Grumman.
“We have to look at the business case and see what makes sense, and what is that customer demand that we need,” he said.
Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said the company has looked at reusability for its LauncherOne rocket. “There are puts and takes there,” he said. “There are constraints and logistics complexities associated with reusability. However, if you get the hardware back and make use of it, there’s certainly a benefit to that.”
He said the company has been looking at manufacturing improvements to drive down launch costs rather than rely on reusing components. “The tradeoff is pretty unclear of whether reusability makes a whole lot of sense.”
One part of the overall LauncherOne system is reusable, though: the Boeing 747 aircraft used as the air-launch platform for the rocket. “She’s flown over 8,500 times,” Hart said of the company’s plane. “So, from a reusability standpoint, I think she’s in the lead.”