Private spaceflight company, Rocket Lab, successfully launched a satellite for Astro Digital, bagging the 5th successful launch in its record, and also the highest its Electron rocket has ever reached.
The rocket took off October 16 from its LC-1 launch site in Mahia Peninsula at 9:22 PM ET (6:22 PM PT), 01:22 GMT and 2:22 PM local New Zealand time on October 17 during its second launch opportunity of the day after the first window was pushed due to high altitude winds.
Everything went according to plan, with the satellite separating about 70 minutes after liftoff.
Rocket Lab’s latest commercial launch, dubbed “As The Crow Flies,” is the ninth Electron launch for the company by far. It is also the eighth mission for a commercial customer, all of which including flight demonstrations. The first was a test mission in 2017 and began ferrying payloads for paying clients in 2018.
Today’s launch carried a satellite called “Palisade” for client Astro Digital, which is a technology demonstrator that will test the company’s next-generation geo-communications satellite design.
Rocket Lab’s Electron spacecraft deployed the Palisade satellite at an altitude of more than 620 miles (1,000 kilometers). That’s more than twice as high as any Rocket Lab flight to date, company representatives said.
On the other hand, Astro Digital’s Palisade satellite is a 16U CubeSat. The “U” stands for “unit,” the basic CubeSat building block, which measures 4 inches (10 centimeters) on one side. Palisade is the size of 16 of these units put together.
Palisade features an “onboard propulsion system, a next-generation Astro Digital-developed communications system, and software developed by Advanced Solutions Inc., including an advanced version of ASI’s MAX Flight Software,” Rocket Lab representatives wrote in a description of the mission, which the company calls “As the Crow Flies.”
That name refers to Astro Digital’s Corvus satellite platform. Corvus is also a genus that includes crows, ravens, and several other related bird species. In relation, Rocket Lab is known to attach quirky mission names to its space missions. For example, the company’s previous launch, which occurred in late August, was known as “Look Ma, No Hands.”
Rocket Lab’s core mission involves making space more accessible by conducting frequent and cost-effective launches for small satellites. Each liftoff of the two-stage Electron costs about $5 million.
The company is working on several fronts to advance its long-term vision. Currently, Rocket Lab’s Electron rockets are intended as fully expendable launch vehicles. However, CEO Peter Beck says that they want to develop its technology to enable the company to start utilizing reusable rockets.
Rocket Lab also wants to start recovering and reusing the Electron’s first stages. But that will not involve propulsive landings of the kind done by the returning first stages of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. Rather, Rocket Lab 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.
Other efforts Rocket Lab is developing the construction of a second launch site, at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island, and aims to fly its first mission from the complex in early 2020.