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Rocket Lab lofts satellites for NRO, NASA, Australia

Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron rocket lofted a bevy of small satellites into orbit tonight for the National Reconnaissance Office, NASA and a project backed by the Australian government and the University of New South Wales Canberra Space.

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Rocket Lab launches top-secret payload for NRO

After waiting out high winds, Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron rocket launched a top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office from New Zealand, halfway around the world from the U.S. spy satellite agency’s headquarters.

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Rocket Lab begins building third launch pad

Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1
An artist’s conception shows Rocket Lab’s Pad 1-B at the upper corner of its Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. (Rocket Lab Illustration)

Just days after officially opening its Virginia launch pad, Rocket Lab announced today that it has started construction of yet another pad at its original New Zealand home base.

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Rocket Lab’s Virginia pad opens for business

Rocket Lab opening
With Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck at center, dignitaries gather at Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island. (NASA Wallops Photo)

Rocket Lab today celebrated the opening of a launch complex on the Virginia coast, half a world away from its first launch pad in New Zealand.

The California-based company’s New Zealand-born CEO, Peter Beck, announced that the first liftoff from Launch Complex 2 at Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island would put an experimental satellite into orbit for the U.S. Air Force early next year. The Air Force’s Monolith nanosatellite will test a miniaturized system that’s designed to keep track of space weather.

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Rocket Lab launches shooting-star satellite

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifted off from its New Zealand launch pad today, sending a shooting-star satellite and six other miniaturized satellites into orbit.

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Spaceflight helps out with shooting-star satellite

ALE-2 satellite
An artist’s conception shows the ALE-2 shooting-star satellite in orbit. (ALE / Spaceflight Illustration)

Seattle-based Spaceflight says it’s handling the pre-launch logistics for a Japanese satellite that’s designed to spray artificial shooting stars into the sky.

Tokyo-based ALE’s spacecraft is just one of seven satellites due to be sent into orbit from New Zealand as early as Nov. 25, aboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle.

It’ll be the 10th Electron launch, earning the nickname “Running Out of Fingers.” It’ll also be the first launch to test the guidance and navigation hardware as well as the sensors that Rocket Lab will eventually use to help make the Electron’s first stage recoverable.

No recovery will be attempted during this mission.

The shooting-star satellite, ALE-2, is already making headlines in New Zealand. It’s designed to release particles from its sun-synchronous orbit below the International Space Station’s altitude, according to a timed schedule. When the particles re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, they’re supposed to burn up and create the appearance of meteors as seen from the ground.

In addition to the entertainment factor, ALE says scientists participating in the Sky Canvas project will be able to study the path of the particles during re-entry. That could lead to more accurate predictions of the path of satellites during orbital decay, and perhaps contribute to studies of weather and climate change.

“This launch gets us much closer to realizing the world’s first man-made shooting star,” ALE’s CEO, Lena Okajima, said in a news release. “We really appreciate Spaceflight`s support and attention to our mission, and we’re honored to take this big step with them.”

Some observers say the Sky Canvas project will be a distraction for astronomers as well as an attraction for skywatchers. Similar examples include the “Humanity Star” disco-ball satellite that Rocket Lab launched in 2018, and SpaceX’s first batch of 60 Starlink satellites.

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Rocket Lab launches a foursome of satellites

Rocket Lab Electron launch
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifts off from its launch pad in New Zealand. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab sent a foursome of satellites into orbit today for a threesome of customers, including the Seattle-based BlackSky Earth-watching venture.

BlackSky’s sibling subsidiary, Spaceflight, handled the prelaunch logistics for the Global-4 satellite and for a pair of experimental U.S. Air Force satellites. The fourth spacecraft in the set is the first satellite for what’s destined to become a maritime surveillance constellation fielded by a French venture called UnseenLabs.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket rose from the company’s launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 12:12 a.m. local time Aug. 20 (5:12 a.m. PT Aug. 19). It successfully went through second-stage separation and fired up its kick stage to deploy the satellites into a 335-mile-high, medium-inclination orbit.

“That’s now eight Electron launches to date and a total of 39 satellites delivered to orbit,” Rocket Lab said in a tweet.

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Rocket Lab will try to recover rocket boosters

Rocket Lab booster recovery
An artist’s conception shows an Electron rocket making a re-entry. (Rocket Lab Illustration)

Taking a page from SpaceX’s playbook, Rocket Lab’s CEO says the company will try to recover the first-stage booster of its Electron rocket to save time and money.

“Electron is going reusable,” CEO Peter Beck announced today at the annual SmallSat conference in Logan, Utah.

But Rocket Lab will take a different route to rocket reusability: Rather than having the booster fire its engines for a retro landing on its feet, the rocket core will be built to withstand the fiery forces of atmospheric re-entry and pop open a parachute to slow itself down. Then it would get plucked from the sky by a helicopter flying out from a ship stationed in the Pacific near Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch complex.

Beck explained that doing reusability the SpaceX way wouldn’t work for Rocket Lab’s “smaller is better” business model. “That takes a small launch vehicle and turns it into a medium launch vehicle,” he said.

The plan for recovering and reusing boosters is a turnabout for Rocket Lab, which has focused on low-cost production of its currently non-reusable, carbon-composite-based Electron rocket and 3-D-printed Rutherford rocket engines.

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‘Terminator Tape’ will fight orbital debris

Terminator Tape
One version of the Terminator Tape system is designed to be integrated onto a 4-inch-wide CubeSat. A dime is included in the picture for a size comparison. (Tethers Unlimited Photo)

Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited will have its technology for deorbiting space debris put to its most ambitious test next year, during a satellite mission that will be conducted in league with TriSept Corp.Millennium Space Systems and Rocket Lab.

The technology, known as Terminator Tape, involves placing a module on a small satellite that can unwind a stretch of electrically conductive tape when it’s time to dispose of the satellite.

“This tape will significantly increase the aerodynamic cross-section of the satellite, enhancing the drag it experiences due to neutral particles,” Tethers Unlimited says in an online explainer. “In addition, the motion of this tape across the Earth’s magnetic field will induce a voltage along the tape. This voltage will drive a current to flow up the tape, with electrons collected from the conducting ionospheric plasma at the top of the tape and ions collected at the bottom. This current will induce a ‘passive electrodynamic’ drag force on the tape.”

The increased drag should dramatically shorten the timetable for dragging a satellite down to its fiery atmospheric re-entry.

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Rocket Lab launches 7 satellites for Spaceflight

Rocket Lab launch
Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle rises from the company’s launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab executed a picture-perfect first launch for Seattle’s Spaceflight Inc., putting BlackSky’s Global-3 Earth-observing satellite and six other small spacecraft into orbit from its New Zealand launch pad.

The Los Angeles-based launch company nicknamed today’s mission “Make It Rain,” in honor of Spaceflight and its allegedly drizzly home base.

In contrast to the nickname, the weather was crystal-clear and sunny for liftoff at 4:30 p.m. June 29 New Zealand time (9:30 p.m. PT June 28) from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The launch had been delayed twice this week, just to make sure all systems were go, but today’s countdown was trouble-free.

The ascent of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket looked trouble-free as well. After the first two stages did their job, the rocket’s kick stage entered what Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck called a “perfect transfer orbit” in preparation for satellite deployment.

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