On July 17th, a Rocket Lab Electron rocket successfully placed seven smallsats into orbit for three different customers. This launch not only marked a significant achievement in satellite deployment but also moved the company closer to realizing its goal of reusing the Electron rocket’s booster.
The launch took place at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand‘s Mahia Peninsula at 9:27 p.m. Eastern Time. Originally scheduled for July 14th, the launch was delayed to allow the company to make final preparations for both launching the rocket and recovering the booster.
During the mission, the Electron rocket’s kick stage executed multiple burns to deploy the payloads into their respective orbits. The deployment sequence began with four NASA Starling 6U smallsats and two Spire 3U smallsats, which were placed into a 575-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. Subsequently, after two additional burns, the kick stage released Telesat’s LEO 3 satellite into a 1,000-kilometer orbit approximately an hour and 45 minutes after liftoff.
Among the payloads were four NASA Starling satellites that will test autonomous swarm operations, two Spire satellites intended to enhance the company’s weather data collection capabilities, and Telesat’s LEO 3 satellite, the largest spacecraft on the mission. LEO 3, built by the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory for Telesat, will aid the Canadian satellite operator in ongoing tests for its future Lightspeed constellation, which had previously been carried out by another prototype satellite nearing the end of its operational life.
The “Baby Come Back” mission presented Rocket Lab with an opportunity to test the viability of recovering and reusing the first smallsats stage of its Electron rocket. As part of their ongoing efforts, the company introduced several modifications to the rocket and adjusted its recovery approach. The initial plan to capture falling boosters mid-air was changed to allow them to land in the ocean. The mission’s webcast showed the retrieved booster on a ship shortly before the final satellite’s deployment.
Rocket Lab’s CEO, Peter Beck, expressed their progress towards reusability, stating that they are now closer than ever to achieving the first relaunch of a booster. Beck mentioned that the recovered booster was in excellent condition.
Beck did not provide a specific timeline for when reusability might be achieved. However, the company plans to reuse a Rutherford engine on an Electron launch later in the year. Wayne McIntosh, the team lead for Electron reusability at Rocket Lab, outlined a series of flight tests in the works before actual reuse is considered.
McIntosh stated that there will be incremental changes introduced in future launches, with a significant shift in the 45th flight. This launch dubbed the “golden child,” will involve sealing changes that will enable accurate vehicle disposition for reuse. The “Baby Come Back” mission marked the 39th flight of an Electron rocket.
Rocket Lab’s recent launch marked its seventh mission this year, encompassing six orbital launches and the launch of the suborbital variant named Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron (HASTE) from Virginia.
According to Peter Beck, the company’s CEO, Rocket Lab is sticking to its earlier projections of conducting up to 15 Electron launches in this year, a count that includes both orbital missions and HASTE flights. Beck acknowledged that the primary challenge in achieving this launch rate has been customer readiness. He mentioned that they anticipate a busy upcoming season as customers aim to finalize their preparations.
The shifts in the market, such as the bankruptcy of Virgin Orbit, have also influenced Rocket Lab’s operations. For instance, NorthStar Earth and Space, initially planning to launch their space situational awareness satellites with Virgin Orbit, switched to Rocket Lab and signed a contract to launch their first four satellites this autumn on an Electron rocket. Beck highlighted that Rocket Lab has observed increased interest from customers who had initially intended to launch with other providers. Notably, the NASA Starling satellites, originally slated for a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket launch, were eventually manifested for Rocket Lab’s mission.
Peter Beck noted that there has been a notable increase in defections from various emerging launch providers this year compared to previous years. Delays and concerns about early flight risks seem to be driving this shift. This trend indicates a degree of uncertainty and volatility within the industry as it continues to evolve.
Beck explained that in the early stages when all providers had only a few launches under their belts, the mission risk was relatively equal for everyone. However, as the industry matures and more launches are completed, the willingness to take on extra risk for potential cost savings diminishes. This is leading customers to opt for providers with proven track records and reliable services.
Rocket Lab has a launch planned for the end of the month, and the company intends to reveal further details about this upcoming mission in the near future.