Electron at LC-2
A Rocket Lab Electron at the company's Launch Complex 2 in Virginia, undergoing fit checks of the new pad ahead of a launch now scheduled for the third quarter of 2020. Credit: Rocket Lab

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab has tested an Electron rocket on its new launch pad in Virginia ahead of a launch that has been pushed back to later this year.

In an April 29 statement, the company said it rolled out an Electron rocket to the pad at Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, recently for a series of tests to check out interfaces between the pad and the vehicle. The tests concluded with a brief static-fire test of the Electron’s nine first-stage engines. The company said the rocket and ground systems “performed seamlessly” during those tests.

That rocket will be used for the launch of Monolith, an Air Force Research Lab smallsat intended to demonstrate the ability to deploy a large-aperture payload for space weather monitoring. The company announced in December that payload would be the first to launch from the new pad, which at the time was scheduled for the second quarter of 2020.

That launch has slipped, though. Rocket Lab said in the statement that the launch is now scheduled for no earlier than the third quarter of this year.

One reason for the delay is the need to get the rocket’s new autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) certified by NASA, which oversees the launch range. In an interview in early April, Pete Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said that work had been delayed by the closure of NASA centers like the Wallops Flight Facility because of the pandemic.

“It’s really out of our control in a lot of respects,” he said then. “NASA needs to certify our AFTS unit for launching out of the NASA range, and obviously NASA is in bit of a state of lockdown.”

Rocket Lab said in its statement about the LC-2 tests that NASA expects to complete the certification in time to support a launch in the third quarter. That launch will mark the first use of an autonomous flight termination system from Wallops.

“For almost 20 years NASA and the DoD have been working to develop an AFTS system that is available for use by all range users within [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] that can greatly reduce the cost of access to space,” David Pierce, director of the Wallops Flight Facility, said in the Rocket Lab statement. “Through our partnership with Rocket Lab on previous Electron launches and on this historic U.S. Air Force mission, we’re able to further our efforts to commercialize AFTS and increase launch responsiveness at U.S. ranges.”

Rocket Lab’s launch operations in New Zealand are also on hold because of the pandemic. The company was preparing to launch an Electron rocket with three National Reconnaissance Office payloads on board when the country went to Level 4, the highest level of its pandemic response plan, in March in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, forcing the company to postpone the launch.

The New Zealand government stepped down to Level 3 earlier this week, allowing some business activities to resume. However, Beck told the New Zealand Herald that international travel restrictions that remain in place are keeping some people it needs to support the launch from entering the country.

“Our team is on standby to launch as soon as those restrictions are eased,” he told the publication.

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...