WASHINGTON — Small satellite launch company Rocket Lab shipped its first orbital launch vehicle to the company’s Launch Complex 1 facility to kick off pre-flight checkouts ahead of a test campaign consisting of three trial launches.
The startup had originally planned to commence test launches in 2016, but opted to perform additional ground testing, give its team some downtime around the Christmas holiday, and also complete infrastructure for the launch facility at Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, Founder and Chief Executive Peter Beck told SpaceNews Feb. 15.
Beck said that the first rocket’s name, “It’s a Test,” is indicative of the company’s mindset toward the debut launch as being an extension of the research and development for Electron before it formally enters service.
“What we want to do is make sure we come into our commercial manifest with a vehicle that’s well buttoned and ready to go,” said Beck. “We have a lot of customers and commitments. We don’t really have time to have a vehicle that’s still in development.”
The Electron launcher is a carbon-composite rocket designed to launch payloads up to 150 kilograms into a 500-kilometer low Earth orbit. Announced customers include Planet, Moon Express, NASA and Spire.
Rocket Lab, after launching more than 80 sounding rockets, started development of the orbital Electron launcher three years ago. The company’s long-term goal is to perform roughly one launch a week, providing dedicated missions for small satellite operators.
Beck said each of the first three trial launches will scale in difficulty, increasing altitude and payload mass each time so that Rocket Lab can gauge the performance capability of the rocket. Rocket Lab will collect more than 20,000 channels of data from each flight, he said.
“The first test flights are all about generating data,” he said.
However, only the first launch will be completely absent of customers. Beck said the second and third test flights will have some customer payloads on board.
Rocket Lab cautioned that the probability of abandoned, or scrubbed, launch attempts with the test flights is high due to the nature of the company’s test regime. The company didn’t give a timeframe for launch. Spokesperson Catherine Moreau-Hammond told SpaceNews Feb. 16 that the timing of the launches depends on the progress of Electron checkouts at site.
“We expect to notify windows of attempts several weeks in advance of the launch,” she said.
“We understand the desire everyone has to get out there and watch,” Beck said in a prepared statement. “History has shown with any test launch program that there is a likelihood of scrubs. We value everyone’s time, and wouldn’t want people waiting around for us.”
If all goes as planned, Beck said Rocket Lab wants to launch seven times this year — three tests and four fully-commercial — and 13 or more times in 2018. Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 facility in New Zealand is licensed to launch once every 72 hours, and the company has highlighted the location as one with limited constraints thanks to an absence of much maritime or aviation activity.