Electron ELaNa-19 launch
A Rocket Lab Electron carrying 13 cubesats lifts off Dec. 16 from the company's Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Credit: Rocket Lab/Trevor Mahlmann

WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle developer Rocket Lab will launch an experimental satellite for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in February, the first of a planned dozen launches in 2019.

Rocket Lab announced Jan. 22 that it will launch a small satellite for DARPA on the company’s Electron rocket from its launch site in New Zealand. That launch will take place in February, likely late in the month, Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said in an interview.

The payload is a satellite developed by DARPA called Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) that will test technologies for deployable antennas. Once in orbit, R3D2 will deploy a Kapton membrane that will expand to a diameter of 2.25 meters to demonstrate the ability to small satellites to carry large deployable antennas needed to support high-bandwidth communications.

The 150-kilogram satellite will be the only payload on the launch as it takes up all the mass and volume available on the rocket. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for R3D2, with the antenna provided by MMA Design and the satellite bus by Blue Canyon Technologies.

R3D2 antenna
The antenna for the R3D2 spacecraft during deployment tests on the ground. Credit: MMA Design

“It’s particularly fitting to be flying the DARPA payload and demonstrating true responsive access to space,” Beck said, noting that responsive space access had been a goal of a number of earlier DARPA projects. “It’s great that we have DARPA as a customer to truly demonstrate that.”

“The Department of Defense has prioritized rapid acquisition of small satellite and launch capabilities. By relying on commercial acquisition practices, DARPA streamlined the R3D2 mission from conception through launch services acquisition,” Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said in a statement. The mission timeline, from satellite design and development through launch, will take about 18 months.

One issue for the upcoming launch is the need for a new launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, as this launch will be flying on a different trajectory than previous Electron launches licensed by the FAA. However, the FAA is not issuing new licenses amid the ongoing government shutdown.

“We’re hoping that the government will open up again soon,” Beck said. “Our customer is working with the appropriate channels to try and get that sorted out.”

The launch is the first of 12 launches Rocket Lab expects to carry out in 2019. Despite the late start, Beck said the company will increase its launch cadence as the year goes on. The second launch of the year will take place four to five weeks after this mission, and by the end of the year Rocket Lab expects to be launching Electrons at a rate of one every two weeks. There may be a break in the middle of the year, he said, to implement “block upgrades” to the Electron and its launch facilities.

“Basically, our goal for 2019 is to continue to deliver that regular, reliable service to orbit,” he said.

Also scheduled for this year is the opening of the company’s second launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Construction of that site is underway even though the ongoing shutdown has hindered the support the space agency can provide. “We’re in full-on construction mode right now,” he said, and on schedule to support a first launch from the new pad in September.

While Rocket Lab is among the first of a new generation of small launch vehicle startups to reach orbit, it is not alone. Other companies, such as Vector and Virgin Orbit, expect to perform their first orbital launches in 2019, with dozens of other vehicles in various stages of design and development.

Despite the competition, Beck said that Rocket Lab is continuing to see strong interest in the Electron. The company announced Jan. 8 it hired Lars Hoffman, a former SpaceX executive, as its new senior vice president for global launch services. Hoffman will be responsible for the company’s sales, business development and customer experience teams.

“We’re really focused on delivering the most agile and responsive tailored launch experience on the market, and bringing Lars on was critical to that,” Beck said. “We’re seeing strong demand for our service.” That includes, he said, setting the company apart from the competition in a variety of areas, from the accuracy of orbital insertion to “the softer aspects” of good customer service.

Beck is among those who expect to see a shakeout in the small launch industry in the near future. “I think it’s going to be an interesting time ahead for the hundred-plus small launch vehicles that are under development within the industry right now,” he said. “I think you’re going to see some fairly strong consolidation over the next 12 months.”

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...