Electron launch
The first Electron rocket lifts off from Rocket Lab's New Zealand launch site May 25. Credit: Rocket Lab

ADELAIDE, Australia — Rocket Lab, the U.S.-New Zealand company developing the Electron small launch vehicle, said Sept. 26 that it will fly four cubesats from two companies on the rocket’s next test flight late this year.

In a statement, Rocket Lab said the Electron’s second test flight later this year will carry two Dove cubesats from Planet and two Lemur cubesats from Spire. The company had originally planned to carry only a test payload on this mission, similar to the rocket’s inaugural launch in May.

“We’re thrilled with Electron’s performance in the first test flight and now we’re eager to test the next crucial step – payload deployment,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement. “No major changes to the launch vehicle hardware have been required.”

The first Electron launch failed to reach orbit, which the company said in August as due to a telemetry problem with a third-party range safety system that triggered the vehicle’s flight termination system. There were no problems with the rocket itself, and the company said the software configuration issue that caused the telemetry problem has been fixed.

“The third-party error that meant we didn’t make orbit has been corrected and we’re focusing on the six Electron vehicles in production right now,” Beck said.

In the statement, Rocket Lab said the rocket will be transported to its New Zealand launch site in October “with a launch window to open in the weeks following” after tests there.

Beck, speaking on a panel at the 68th International Astronautical Congress here Sept. 26, suggested it might be several more weeks before the rocket is ready to launch. “For the next flight, we’re trying to roll out in about eight weeks,” he said. He later said that the extra time will allow for more testing of the rocket’s telemetry systems.

Both Planet and Spire had previously signed on as customers for later Electron launches. The companies did not disclose the terms of the agreement that allowed them to fly cubesats on this upcoming test flight.

“The Electron will be a game changer in a traditionally difficult launch market,” said Mike Safyan, senior director of launch at Planet. “We are excited to quite literally be riding the leading edge with Rocket Lab.”

Both Planet and Spire have complained about the challenges of using secondary payload, or rideshare, opportunities to deploy their constellation of cubesats. During another panel session at the conference Sept. 26, Robbie Schingler, cofounder and chief strategy officer of Planet, called launch one of the key challenges for emerging space companies.

“Launch is still the largest barrier to innovation in our industry, by far,” he said. “I think the largest opportunity to really allow for near Earth space to open up to commerce is going to be with small, dedicated nanolaunch.”

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...