The Photon satellite platform, right, is based on the kick stge of Rocket Lab’s Electron small launch vehicle. Credit: Rocket Lab

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Small launch vehicle developer Rocket Lab plans to focus on its satellite program in 2020, offering a high-performance spacecraft bus that complements its existing rocket.

While Rocket Lab is best known for its Electron small launch vehicle, the company announced last year it was developing a satellite bus called Photon based on the Electron’s kick stage. The company believes that the stage could serve as an ideal platform for companies that want a quick way to get sensors or other payloads into orbit.

Getting Photon into commercial service is a major priority for the company in 2020. “This year for us is really the year of the satellite,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview Feb. 4 during the SmallSat Symposium here. He said the company sees launch services a “solved problem” now with the Electron, even as it works to ramp up the flight rate of the vehicle and open new launch complexes.

“Our focus this year is really all about the spacecraft, because that’s really the next big thing that needs to be solved,” he said. “Most people know Rocket Lab as a launch company, but we’re very much focusing on being a space company.”

Beck said that Rocket Lab sees Photon as a high-performance satellite bus that can serve a wide variety of government and commercial customers. He said there’s particular interest from government users, who call the Photon a “sandbox in LEO” because it enables them to test payloads in orbit “on timeframes that are almost absurd.”

Companies, he added, are also interested in the platform, allowing them to focus on their business model and unique technologies. “Those startup companies should be focused on their sensor and their revenue,” he said, rather than the satellite itself. “We’ve got some really strong uptake on that.”

Rocket Lab plans to launch its first Photon in the second quarter. Beck said that will be a demonstration satellite, with the opportunity for potential customers to test its performance. If successful, he said the company would then move quickly into operational missions, but did not disclose any specific customers.

Photon, he acknowledged, will not be at the low end of the market. “We will not be the cheapest option,” he said, except in cases where Photon can carry payloads that otherwise would have flown on multiple satellites. “We’re looking to build a best-in-class.”

In launch, Beck reiterated that Rocket Lab was planning to average one launch a month this year. The company performed its first Electron launch of 2020 Jan. 30, placing a classified payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office. Beck said the company’s next launch will likely take place in late February or early March.

Rocket Lab will also continue efforts this year to recover and reuse the first stage of the Electron. Beck said on the most recent launch, the first stage remained intact and under control all the way to the ocean surface. Reusability tests will resume later this year after another “block upgrade” to the rocket to incorporate parachutes that will allow a slow descent to the ocean.

The company is facing new competition in the small launch sector. Two companies, Astra and Virgin Orbit, are scheduled to attempt their first orbital launches in the coming weeks, and dozens of other vehicles are under development worldwide.

Beck said he thinks that many of these companies underestimate the difficult of transitioning from a single successful launch to routine operations. “When you get to first flight, you’re only halfway there,” he said.

Rocket Lab has grown from about 100 employees at the time of its first launch in 2017 to more than 500 people today, primarily to deal with the work involved with going into operations at an increasing launch cadence. “I don’t think people truly grasp the pain of production,” he said. “It truly is one of the hardest things about the whole space business.”

A significant share of the company’s business, he said, is from “hair on fire” customers who are looking for alternative launch options after their initial vendors, often other small launch vehicle companies, suffered delays. Beck said Rocket Lab is reserving space on its manifest later this year for those customers who need to get to orbit quickly.

“I wish everybody the best of luck because I know how hard it is,” he said. “The first flight is great, but you’re halfway to building a business.”

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...