Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has just soared into the history books, making New Zealand just the eleventh nation to achieve satellite launch capability — although uniquely in the world, this was not a government operation, but a strictly private one. Arguably, Rocket Lab is even more private than SpaceX, as they do not lease a launch facility from a government agency — they own it outright, and built it all themselves. (The first purely commercial rocket, Pegasus, technically also has a privately operated launch facility, the L-1011 Tristar named “Stargazer”. But to date it has operated exclusively out of government airfields, as it’s easier for the materials handling issues that come up with a big solid-propellant rocket.) The vehicle, nicknamed “Still Testing”, was their second attempt, after an attempt last year (nicknamed “It’s A Test”) ended in a deliberate destruction due to telemetry loss during ascent. It carried three Cubesats to orbit, and the ambition is to free Cubesats from needing to piggyback along with bigger vehicles that just happen to be going to a mostly-acceptable orbital inclination, as Electron aims to be cheap enough for just a few Cubesats to pay for the mission. Time will tell if that’s achievable, but Cubesat operators such as Planet Labs (who flew a Dove imaging satellite on this mission) and Spire Global (who flew two of their Lemur communications satellites on this mission) seem confident. The launch site on Mahia Peninsula offers a very impressive range of orbital inclinations, promising to place smallsats anywhere from 31 degrees to polar orbits.
Here’s the official webcast; skip ahead to 14:50 for the exciting bits. 😉
New Zealand is now the latest country to launch something into space! The vehicle failed to achieve a stable orbit, but it did climb above the Karman Line. Rocket Lab’s commercial Electron rocket made its first test flight from Mahia Peninsula on North Island. It’s a small rocket, intended to service the burgeoning nanosatellite market with promises of rapid flight scheduling. Once it enters commercial service, it is expected to carry up to 330 pounds into a sun-synchronous orbit. The first stage is powered by nine Rutherford engines (named for the New Zealand-born Nobel prize winner Ernest Rutherford, of course) which feature an innovative new fuel pump — rather than being driven by turbopumps powered by the vehicle’s own propellants, they use battery-powered electric pumps. Additionally, this is the first operational rocket engine to be primarily 3D printed.
The flight wasn’t completely successful, but it didn’t explode and did make it all the way through staging and payload fairing jettison, which is damned impressive for a first flight, especially of an entirely new system with a first-of-its kind fuel pump. This will definitely be a company to watch.
Delta IV pulled off another flawless launch from Cape Canaveral today, placing the Wideband Global SATCOM-9 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. WGS-9 is a military commsat operated by the United States Air Force but jointly procured by five other nations: Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. This was not the first WGS satellite paid for by a foreign power; WGS-6 was contributed by Australia. And ground stations have been paid for partially by partner nations, who, again, receive bandwidth in proportion to their investment. USAF is moving towards launch of WGS-10 later this year, but that is expected to be the final element of the constellation, at least int the forseeable future.
This was the 35th flight of Delta IV, and the 108th successful Delta program launch in a row. This flew in the 5,4 configuration — 5 meter fairing, 4 solid rocket motors. Single-core Delta IV is expected to retire by the end of 2018, with only the Delta Heavy continuing on, alongside the Vulcan rocket that will be ULA’s next offering (intended to replace both Delta IV and Atlas V).