Rocket Lab delivered four new satellites to orbit

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Private spaceflight company, Rocket Lab, has successfully launched four new satellites into orbit after its initial flight was postponed for three days due to strong winds in its launchpad.

Rocket Lab’s Electron booster took flight predawn at 8:12 a.m. EDT (1212 GMT) from the company’s Māhia Peninsula launch site in New Zealand, where the local time was 12:12 a.m. Tuesday. 

According to the company, all went well and the satellites were deployed successfully before 9:15 a.m. EDT.

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

Monday’s launch, nicknamed “Look Ma, No Hands,” follows the company’s unique way of choosing mission names, carried four different satellites. One of which was from French company UnseenLabs, while the rest was arranged by the rideshare provider Spaceflight.

The CubeSat — Rocket Lab’s small satellite launch segments — from UnseenLabs was the first of the planned constellation of small maritime surveillance satellites for ocean monitoring. The satellite was built by Danish company GomSpace. UnseenLabs says that their satellites are not dependent on tracking Automatic Identification System signals.

Meanwhile, those under Spaceflight’s arrangements included BlackSky’s Global-4 satellites, which was also the largest satellite in this Electron booster’s payload. Additionally, BlackSky is a sister company of Spaceflight.

In particular, the Global-4 satellites are a series of high-resolution imaging satellites, which aims help BlackSky provide Earth-imaging satellites to enable frequent revisits over the same location to help analysts identify changes over short time cycles.

This follows Global-3, which launched on the previous Electron mission last June 29 and at least four more satellites are expected to join the set later this year.

“Thank you to our dedicated team for another flawless launch, and to our mission partners for entrusting Rocket Lab with the continued expansion of their constellations,”  Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck said in a statement.

“Every mission is a privilege, but it was as an especially proud moment for our team to launch another BlackSky Global satellite for Spaceflight just weeks after putting the last one in orbit.”

Finally, the other two satellites in Electron’s payload were two experimental technology demonstration satellites for the United States Air Force Command.

The Air Force satellites are “designed to test new technologies including propulsion, power, communications, and drag capabilities for potential applications on future spacecraft,” Rocket Lab said in a statement.

All in all, the four satellites carried on the rocket’s Curie kick stage deployed successfully about 53 minutes after liftoff into a circular orbit 540 kilometers high at an inclination of 45 degrees.

Currently, Rocket Lab’s Electron rockets are intended as fully expendable launch vehicles. However, Beck says that they want to develop its technology to enable the company to start utilizing reusable rockets.

“This mission was also another exciting step towards our plans to recover and reuse Electron’s first stage in future missions,” Beck said. “The team is eagerly analyzing the data as we work towards reusability.”

In particular, Rocket Lab’s recovery plan for its rockets is still playing catch up with approaches from SpaceX or Blue Origin, where their rockets can make vertical returns on the Earth’s surface.

Monday’s launch, however, wants to start following that trend. Specifically, Rocket Lab’s second flight of an Electron had a new data recorder to monitor the first stage during its flight. This will further the company’s goal to snatch returning rockets out of the sky using a helicopter. 

Additionally, its most recent launch also included a test of recovery equipment for the Electron rockets. According to the company, it plans to use data gathered from the spacecraft’s reentry to devise a method that would allow them to catch or “hook” it mid-air as it makes its way down.

Essentially, the company will be able to determine necessary methods that would allow the spacecraft to survive the tumulous descend of Electron and be able to refurbish the spacecraft for reuse.

Beck said that, in a best-case scenario, the company could recover the first-stage element of Electron before the end of the year, initially allowing it to splashdown in the ocean where a team can recover it afterward.

The innovation would help Rocket Lab cut down on costs, Beck said. Especially when the company is seeking to achieve a monthly launch cadence by the end of this year, saying that demand for launches is growing even faster.

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