Electron launch of GMS-T
A Rocket Lab Electron lifts off Jan. 20 carrying the GMS-T communications satellite built by OHB. Credit: Rocket Lab

Updated 2:45 p.m. Eastern with OHB statement.

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab successfully launched a communications satellite for German company OHB Group Jan. 20 in the first Electron mission of the year.

The Electron lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 at Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, at 2:26 a.m. Eastern after a brief delay because of gusty winds. Rocket Lab scrubbed the original launch attempt for the “Another One Leaves the Crust” mission four days earlier because of “strange data” from a sensor.

Electron released the sole satellite on the mission, GMS-T, 70 minutes after liftoff. “Perfect orbit, payload deployed. Hello 2021!” tweeted Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab.

The payload for this mission has been shrouded in secrecy since Rocket Lab announced the planned launch Jan. 5. The name of the satellite itself was not disclosed by OHB until after liftoff, and a press kit for the mission did not include the satellite’s mass or orbital altitude, stating only that it was going into an orbit at an inclination of 90 degrees.

Rocket Lab said in its announcement of the upcoming launch that the payloads “will be a single communication microsatellite that will enable specific frequencies to support future services from orbit.” OHB, which built the satellite, procured the launch last August. At the time it cited “an unmatched delivery time” by Rocket Lab, who agreed to launch the payload within six months.

An image of the rocket’s payload fairing included a logo with an illustration of the satellite and the words “BIU GMS-T.” Analysts speculated that the name of the satellite was GMS-T, with BIU referring to “bring into use,” a term in satellite communications for first use of spectrum allocated by the International Telecommunication Union and national regulators and consistent with the stated mission to “enable specific frequencies” for future applications.

I think i have ID-ed the mystery OHB payload! Seems to be a GMS Zhaopin aka Kleo Connect prototype for LEO broadband. Probably secret due to Germany-China relations (see Mynaric for example) https://t.co/ifaeRWPxSs

— Alexandre Najjar (@AlexNajjarEC) January 11, 2021

The ultimate customer for the satellite may be GMS Zhaopin, a Chinese company planning a satellite constellation. It has been linked to a German company, KLEO Connect, that has announced plans for a constellation to provide internet of things services.

In a statement after the launch, OHB described GMS-T as a “50 kg class” satellite placed in an orbit 1,200 kilometers high. It described GMS-T as “the first prototype spacecraft for a planned new multi-hundred telecommunication satellite constellation in LEO using microwave broadband radio communication links” and confirmed it was launched to meet ITU bring-into-use requirements. The company, though, did not disclose the ultimate customer of GMS-T.

“With outstanding agility, reactiveness and flexibility, OHB and its key partners were able to engineer, assemble, test and launch this satellite in an unmatched contract-to-launch time,” Lutz Bertling, chief digital officer of OHB, said in the statement, which noted work to assemble the spacecraft started just seven months ago.

The launch is the first of what Rocket Lab previously called a “packed launch manifest” for 2021, although the company has not announced a specific number of launches it foresees performing this year. Those launches will include the first launches from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia, and from a second pad at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.

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...