Rocket Lab hops to conduct a long-delayed first Electron launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, this year once NASA completes certification of an autonomous flight safety system. Credit: Rocket Lab

WASHINGTON — The long-delayed first launch of a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from Virginia is now scheduled for late this year, carrying satellites for HawkEye 360.

Rocket Lab announced April 19 it signed a contract with HawkEye 360 to deliver 15 satellites over three launches. Two of the launches will be dedicated flights, carrying six satellites each, while the third will carry three satellites on a rideshare mission with other customers.

The first of those launches, scheduled for no earlier than December, will be the first Electron launch from the company’s Launch Complex 2 on Wallops Island, Virginia. If that schedule holds, the launch will come three years after the company formally declared the launch pad complete. At that time a U.S. Space Force satellite called Monolith was going to be the first to launch from Wallops, but delays caused that satellite to launch from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch site in July 2021.

The delay in the first launch from Wallops has been due primarily to issues getting NASA certification of an autonomous flight termination system. That system, called the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU), is required for Electron launches from Wallops.

“Encouraged by NASA’s recent progress in certifying its Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU) software, which is required to enable Electron launches from Virginia, Rocket Lab has scheduled the mission from Launch Complex 2 no earlier than December 2022,” Rocket Lab said in a statement. A company spokesperson, asked if that launch date was driven by progress on NAFTU certification or customer readiness, said both were factors.

In January, NASA announced it had provided launch companies like Rocket Lab an advanced release of the NAFTU software with the expectation that the system would be certified as soon as February. The agency has not updated progress on NAFTU since then.

“My confidence level is high, but it was high last year, too,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said of launching from Wallops this year in an interview in February. “I would be extraordinarily disappointed if NASA doesn’t meet their deliveries to enable us to launch this year.”

Rob Rainhart, chief operating officer of Herndon, Virginia-based HawkEye 360, said the 15 satellites that will be launched on Electron will help reduce revisit times for its overall constellation of radio-frequency monitoring satellites, particularly in mid-latitude regions. “We’re excited to be joining the inaugural launch from Virginia, as a Virginia-based company launching our satellites from our home state,” he said in a statement.

Rocket Lab’s next mission is scheduled for no earlier than April 22 from New Zealand, carrying 34 satellites for various customers on a dedicated rideshare mission. The launch will be Rocket Lab’s next step toward rocket reuse, as it attempts to catch the booster, descending under parachutes, with a helicopter. A successful recovery would set the company up to attempt to reuse the stage on a future launch.

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...