Once the BlackSky 7 satellite was deployed from the kick stage on Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle, it took mere hours for BlackSky’s team to check out the satellite and downlink pictures. Those pictures were then analyzed by BlackSky’s Spectra AI suite of machine language algorithms to identify points of interest.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.