Spaceflight startup Rocket Lab sends its Electron rocket to orbit for the first time

This weekend, US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab successfully launched its second Electron rocket for a crucial flight test — and reached orbit for the first time. The Electron took off from the company’s New Zealand launch facility at 2:43PM local time on Sunday (or 8:43PM ET on Saturday), and about eight and a half minutes later, the rocket deployed three small commercial satellites. It marks the first time the Electron has completed a full mission, and that may mean Rocket Lab is ready to start commercial flights of the vehicle.

“Reaching orbit on a second test flight is significant on its own, but successfully deploying customer payloads so early in a new rocket program is almost unprecedented,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said in a statement. “Rocket Lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that.”

Rocket Lab’s big ambition is to be a dedicated launcher of small satellites. That’s why the company’s Electron rocket isn’t very big itself. It stands at just over 55 feet tall, a slight stature compared to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is a lofty 180 feet tall. And the Electron’s capacity is limited, only capable of getting between 330 and 500 pounds to lower Earth orbit. For comparison, the Falcon 9 can get around 50,000 pounds to a similar orbit.

But demand for this type of small rocket has been high. Operators of tiny satellites don’t have many options to get to space, and typically have to hitch rides on launches of much bigger probes. That’s not always ideal, since it means waiting for someone else’s launch and possibly going to a less-than-desirable orbit. But with a launcher like the Electron, small satellite operators can potentially pay for an entire rocket ride for their hardware, and Rocket Lab says individual flights may start as low as $4.9 million. The company says it already has a full manifest of customers waiting for trips.

Rocket Lab’s Electron taking off during its second test flight, “Still Testing” Image: Rocket Lab

Before customers can start flying, Rocket Lab needed to show that the Electron could do its job, and getting to orbit was a key goal of this test. During the first flight test of the vehicle, appropriately called “It’s a Test,” the Electron made it to space but failed to make it to orbit. Some communications equipment on the ground lost contact with the rocket during flight, causing the vehicle to abort its mission. Rocket Lab said that if the mishap hadn’t occurred, the Electron would have made it to orbit.

Then Rocket Lab also had some difficulty getting this second test flight off the ground. Called “Still Testing,” the flight was originally planned for December, when Rocket Lab had a 10-day launch window. The company had the option to fly anytime during four-hour increments each day of the window, but a combination of bad weather and a series of technical challenges prevented the Electron from taking off. So Rocket Lab set a new nine-day launch window in January. The company tried to launch the first day of the window, but ultimately had to delay until Sunday in New Zealand, when the Electron finally took flight.

Now, the Electron has shown its both capable of getting to orbit and deploying payloads successfully. The rocket carried three commercial satellites on this trip: a Dove Earth-imaging satellite for Planet and two Lemur satellites for Spire that track ships and weather. With their successful deployment, it’s possible Rocket Lab may start commercial missions on its next flight. Originally, the company had planned to do three flight tests, but Beck indicated that if this flight went well enough, Rocket Lab might skip the third test altogether.

Rocket Lab’s view from space during its second test flight Image: Rocket Lab
And that means Rocket Lab can finally start launching the payloads of its long customer lineup, which includes NASA, Spaceflight, and more. The company is also slated to launch a lunar lander for the company Moon Express, which hopes to mine the Moon for resources someday. Moon Express is also competing as part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition — a contest to send the first privately funded lander to the Moon’s surface — and the deadline to win is coming up. Participants have to complete their lunar excursions before March 31st, 2018 in order to win the grand prize money. Now, it’s possible Rocket Lab could be ready to do the mission, though Moon Express hasn’t unveiled a completed lander yet.

Plus, it’s unclear when Rocket Lab will launch next and which customer the company will fly. The company said it will be reviewing the data from this test flight to figure out its next move. But Rocket Lab does have five completed Electron rockets available, and expects to fly again in “early 2018.” Eventually, the plan is to launch much more frequently, perhaps more than 50 times a year, and this weekend’s test flight is a big step toward making that happen.

“Today marks the beginning of a new era in commercial access to space,” said Beck. “We’re thrilled to reach this milestone so quickly after our first test launch.”

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