Rocket Lab to offer lunar missions, ground station services

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Updated 3:25 p.m. Eastern with revised payload mass for lunar missions.

WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle company Rocket Lab will offer rides to the moon for small payloads and, through a partnership, ground station services for Earth orbit customers, the company announced this week.

Rocket Lab said Oct. 21 it was adding lunar payload services to Photon, a satellite bus it unveiled in April. Photon will be able to carry payloads to lunar orbit or the nearby L-1 and L-2 Lagrange points for an undisclosed price.

In an interview during the 70th International Astronautical Congress here, Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said Photon will be able to carry 30 kilograms of payload to the moon, such as scientific instruments. Photon will handle all the other services needed for the mission, including power, propulsion and communications.

Beck said Rocket Lab decided to pursue lunar missions based on both customer inquiries and internal interest. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised with the kinds of things we can do with it,” he said of Photon. “This is kind of the next evolution. There’s a lot of opportunity here.”

Rocket Lab doesn’t have any customers for lunar missions yet, but Beck said there’s been interest from both governments and companies, who could use those missions are precursors for larger missions to the moon. “We’re very passionate about space exploration, and we feel like we can play a role to get infrastructure there first to aid with these programs.”

The lunar Photon missions are enabled by a new bipropellant propulsion system the company developed for the Curie kick stage, which serves as the basis for the Photon bus. Rocket Lab demonstrated that enhanced propulsion system on the company’s latest launch Oct. 16, which placed a single Astro Digital cubesat into an orbit more than twice as high as previous Electron launches.

The first Photon mission to Earth orbit is scheduled for 2020. Beck said the company has customers for the system, including both government and commercial, but has yet to disclose specific names

Under a separate agreement announced Oct. 22, Rocket Lab will provide customers for both Electron launches and Photon spacecraft access to the KSAT network of ground stations as an additional service, so that customers don’t have to make separate arrangements.

Beck said the KSAT partnership will allow the company to offer a complete set of services for customers. “There are three pillars in space: launch, satellites and ground. Our objective is to provide all of those things,” he said. “The goal here is to make it easy for customers.”

“The partnership is really natural for both companies,” said Katherine Monson, head of KSAT USA. “Collectively, we can integrate our two platforms so that everyone can focus on building good business cases for space-based data platforms, and we’ll figure out the behind-the-scenes work.”

Rocket Lab’s next Electron launch, the tenth for the vehicle overall, is scheduled for next November. The company also plans two launches weeks apart at the end of the year as a demonstration of the company’s ability to support high flight rates.

That November launch will be the first of a “block upgrade” of the vehicle, including improvements intended to support reusability of the first stage. “On Flight 10 we won’t be trying to recover it with parachutes, but we will push it deep into the atmosphere with a control system,” he said.

If that test is successful, he said the company could soon add parachutes to the stage and attempt a recovery. “I’m expecting to learn a lot, though,” he said.