Electorn launch
A Rocket Lab Electron lifts off from New Zealand Dec. 8 carrying two BlackSky satellites. Credit: Rocket Lab

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab launched another pair of BlackSky satellites Dec. 8, a day after the company won a contract from a Japanese firm for three launches of radar imaging satellites.

A Rocket Lab Electron lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex One in New Zealand at 7:02 p.m. Eastern. The rocket deployed its payload of two BlackSky satellites into orbits 430 kilometers high and at inclinations of 42 degrees about an hour later.

The launch took place just three weeks after another Electron launching from the same site placed two other BlackSky satellites into orbit. The launches are part of a contract, arranged by Spaceflight, that includes a third launch of BlackSky satellites in early 2022.

“These back-to-back missions are a showcase of the benefits of rapid launch in action: quick constellation expansion, streamlined access to space and fast delivery of global insights to BlackSky customers that Rocket Lab is proud to facilitate with dedicated launch on Electron,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement after the launch.

In addition to the Electron launches, BlackSky launched two other satellites on a SpaceX Falcon 9 Dec. 2 as rideshare payloads on a Starlink launch. BlackSky will have 12 satellites in service with this latest launch, which the company says will allow it to provide revisit rates in “key markets” of six per day.

This launch was the sixth and final Electron launch of 2021. Rocket Lab had projected a higher launch rate in 2021 but was slowed by both a May launch failure that grounded Electron for two and a half months as well as pandemic restrictions in New Zealand that put launches on hold between that return-to-flight mission in late July and the Nov. 18 BlackSky launch.

Synspective contract

The launch took place a day after Rocket Lab announced a contract with Synspective, a Japanese company developing a constellation of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, for three launches in 2022 and 2023.

Each launch will carry a single StriX SAR satellite, starting with the StriX-β demonstration satellite in early 2022. Rocket Lab launched the company’s first satellite, StriX-α, in December 2020.

“We’re honored the Synspective team has once again chosen Electron to grow their StriX constellation,” Beck said in a statement. “We recognize the importance of dedicated orbits and custom mission parameters for constellations, and we’re delighted to deliver a tailored launch and integration service to the Synspective team once again.”

As with StriX-α, Synspective turned to Rocket Lab after delays with another provider. Synspective said in a statement that it had planned to launch StriX-β on a Soyuz rocket through rideshare launch services provider Exolaunch, but a change in the schedule for that launch led it to move the satellite to Electron. In 2020, Synspective moved StriX-α from Arianespace’s Vega because of delays after a July 2019 Vega launch failure.

“It is a great honor to collaborate with Rocket Lab, which is evolving from a rocket venture pioneer to an experienced launch service provider with the successful StriX-α deployment to orbit,” Motoyuki Arai, founder and chief executive of Synspective, said in a statement. “We are very grateful for their flexibility in accepting our requests on the satellite’s orbit and launch period.”

Synspective plans to have six satellites in orbit by 2023, growing its constellation to 30 satellites by the late 2020s.

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...