Rocket Lab sets November date for next Electron launch

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WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab said Oct. 30 it plans to perform a long-delayed launch of an Electron rocket carrying several small satellites during a mid-November launch window, as the company seeks to ramp up its launch activity.

The company, headquartered in California but with launch operations in New Zealand, said its third Electron mission, dubbed “It’s Business Time,” is scheduled to launch during a nine-day period that opens Nov. 11 from the company’s launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. A four-hour launch window will be available each day, starting at 4:00 p.m. local time (10:00 p.m. Eastern the day before).

That mission was originally scheduled for launch in April but postponed because of a motor controller problem in one of the rocket’s first stage engines. The company corrected the problem and rescheduled the launch for late June, only to have the problem reappear.

In an August interview, Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said the company decided to make changes to the design of the controller to address the problem. “We made the decision to bite the bullet,” he said then. “We’ll go in there and make some changes to the hardware, some components of the motor controller.”

Doing so, he said, would require a “complete qualification program” of testing of the revised hardware, pushing back the launch until November, a date the company has stuck to in the months following.

Rocket Lab used the delay to add more payloads to the mission’s manifest. The company announced Oct. 29 that Fleet, an Australian company developing a constellation of smallsats for Internet of Things services, will fly two of its Proxima 1.5-unit cubesats on the Electron.

“We decided to build and launch two more satellites over the past few months and Rocket Lab has moved at the speed of light to incorporate them in this mission, assist us with licensing and complete integration in record time,” Flavia Tata Nardini, chief executive of Fleet, said in a statement.

The satellites will be Fleet’s first to reach space if the Electron launches on schedule. The company also has larger 3-unit cubesats awaiting launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 later in November and an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle late this year.

The Proxima cubesats join the existing payloads for the mission, including two Lemur-2 cubesats from Spire, a satellite built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems for weather satellite constellation company GeoOptics, and IRVINE01, a cubesat built by high school students in Southern California. A technology demonstration hosted payload developed by German company High Performance Space Structure Systems GmBH to test drag sail technologies will also fly on the mission, remaining attached to the rocket’s upper stage.

Rocket Lab sees the upcoming launch as part of a transition into “high frequency” launch operations. The company plans to follow up this launch with another Electron mission in December, carrying a collection of cubesats from NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative under a contract awarded by NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program in 2015.

“This year has been about scaling our team, facilities and processes to enable reliable, high frequency Electron launches to orbit,” Beck said in the statement about its launch plans. That included the opening in early October of a new vehicle manufacturing facility in Auckland, New Zealand, capable of producing one Electron rocket a week.

The company also broke ground Oct. 17 on a second launch site at Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island. That facility, intended primarily for customers who prefer to launch from the United States, will be ready to support a first launch as soon as the third quarter of 2019.