A new commercial Rocket Startup has just made history.
Rocket Lab successfully launched its Electron rocket on Nov. 10 on a long-delayed first commercial mission for the small launch vehicle.
The Electron lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 10:50 p.m. Eastern (4:50 p.m. local time Nov. 11) after a trouble-free countdown. The two-stage rocket released an upper stage, called Curie, into orbit nine minutes after liftoff.
Curie ignited its engines 51 minutes after liftoff to go into a circular 500-kilometer orbit at an inclination of 85 degrees. Three minutes later it released its payload of six small satellites.
“We’re thrilled to be leading the small satellite launch industry by reaching orbit a second time and deploying more payloads,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a post-launch statement. “The team carried out a flawless flight with incredibly precise orbital insertion.”
Those satellites included two Lemur-2 cubesats for Spire, which operates a constellation of such spacecraft to collect weather data as well as track vessels and aircraft. The Cicero-10 small satellite built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems for weather satellite constellation company GeoOptics was also on the launch, as was IRVINE01, a cubesat built by high school students in Southern California. IRVINE01 features an electric propulsion system developed by Accion Systems, marking the first flight of that company’s technology.
Fleet, an Australian company developing a constellation of smallsats for Internet of Things services, added two 1.5-unit Proxima cubesats to the mission in October. The satellites are the first to be launched by the company, ahead of larger 3-unit cubesats that are part of a SpaceX Falcon 9 dedicated rideshare mission scheduled to launch later in November.
With this success the company plans to step up the pace of launches. Rocket Lab’s next Electron mission is expected to take place in December as well as 16 launches planned for 2019, carrying a collection of cubesats from NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative under a contract awarded by NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program in 2015.
The launch keeps Rocket Lab – valued at more than $1.2 billion and based in New Zealand and California – at the front of the pack in the small rocket race. Beck estimates there are over 100 companies trying to catch up.
The factories in New Zealand and California “have been specifically designed to produce one rocket a week,” Beck said. Rocket Lab aims to be launching at a weekly rate in 2020.
“Next year we’re starting off at one a month, trying to move to one every two weeks,” Beck said.