Rocket Lab to Launch U.S. Space Force Mission from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand
Long Beach, California. July 27, 2021 – Rocket Lab, the leading launch and space systems company, today announced it will open a launch window from tomorrow to launch a research and development satellite to low Earth orbit from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand for the United States Space Force (USSF).
The dedicated mission is scheduled for lift-off on July 29, 2021 NZT (July 29 UTC) and will see Electron deploy an Air Force Research Laboratory-sponsored demonstration satellite called Monolith. The satellite will explore and demonstrate the use of a deployable sensor, where the sensor’s mass is a substantial fraction of the total mass of the spacecraft, changing the spacecraft’s dynamic properties and testing ability to maintain spacecraft attitude control. Analysis from the use of a deployable sensor aims to enable the use of smaller satellite buses when building future deployable sensors such as weather satellites, thereby reducing the cost, complexity, and development timelines. The satellite will also provide a platform to test future space protection capabilities.
The launch window extends for 12 days, with lift-off scheduled as follows:
NZT: 18:00 - 20:00
UTC: 06:00 - 08:00
EDT: 02:00 - 04:00
PDT: 23:00 - 01:00
The mission was procured by the Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program (STP) and the Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP), both based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.; in partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) as part of the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI). The mission is being managed by the Launch Enterprise’s Small Launch and Targets Division, which is part of the USSF’s launch organization of choice. The mission has been named ‘It’s a Little Chile Up Here’ in a nod to the beloved green chile of New Mexico where the Space Test Program is based.
‘It’s a Little Chile Up Here’ will be Rocket Lab’s fourth launch for the year and the company’s 21st Electron launch overall.
Originally slated for lift-off from Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia, the mission has been transferred to Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) in New Zealand while NASA continues certification processes for autonomous flight termination system software for launches from LC-2.
The mission follows on from a previous Rocket Lab launch under the same agreement, the STP-27RD mission launched by Electron in May 2019. That mission, named ‘’That’s a Funny Looking Cactus’, saw Electron deploy three research and development satellites for the Space Test Program.
“We’re excited to have another Electron on the pad for the Space Test Program,” said Rocket Lab CEO and founder, Peter Beck. “We’re proud to once again demonstrate the flexible and resilient space access required by our government partners. The Space Test Program has a long history of developing advanced space and launch capabilities that we’ve all come to rely on, from global positioning systems, satellite communications, meteorological satellites, and space domain awareness capabilities. We’re proud to support the continuation of that innovation through rapid and agile launch on Electron.”
Rocket Lab returns Electron to flight with Space Force launch
WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab returned its Electron rocket to flight July 29 with the successful launch of an experimental satellite for the U.S. Space Force.
The Electron lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 2 a.m. Eastern. The rocket’s two stages performed normally and, after a coast phase, the vehicle’s kick stage deployed the Monolith satellite 52 minutes after liftoff into a 600-kilometer orbit at an inclination of 37 degrees.
The launch was the first for Electron since a May 15 mission that failed to reach orbit when the rocket’s second stage engine shut down moments after ignition. The company traced the failure to “a previously undetectable failure mode” in the ignition system not seen in earlier launches or in ground testing. That problem corrupted signals in the computer on the stage, which in turn caused the thrust vector control system to “deviate outside nominal parameters” and forced the engine to shut down.
That failure was the second in less than a year for the Electron and the third in 20 launches. In response to the May launch failure, the company created what it called “redundancies” in the ignition system, such as changes to the design of the igniter and how it is manufactured, to prevent the problem from happening again.
“We are back on the pad today with an even more reliable launch vehicle,” said Murielle Baker, host of the Rocket Lab webcast of the launch.
This mission, called “It’s a Little Chile Up Here” by Rocket Lab, carried a single small satellite called Monolith developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and built by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory. The launch was procured by the Space Test Program and Rocket Systems Launch Program, part of the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC).
Monolith, SMC said in a statement, will test a large deployable sensor designed to fit on one of the sides of a 6U or 12U cubesat. The tests will examine how a sensor whose mass is “a substantial fraction” of the overall spacecraft affects the dynamic properties of the spacecraft and its attitude control.
The spacecraft will also “provide a platform to test future space protection capabilities,” SMC stated, but did not elaborate on those capabilities.
Monolith was originally slated to go on the inaugural launch from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia. However, Rocket Lab said it moved the mission to New Zealand “while NASA continues certification processes for autonomous flight termination system software for launches” from Launch Complex 2.
Development of that software has taken much longer than anticipated. In a November 2020 talk, David Pierce, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said reviews of the software last summer found errors that would take time to correct. “We expect that, under the current rate in which we’re developing and correcting the code errors, we should be ready to certify that unit in the first half of ’21,” he said then.
The software is still not complete past the halfway mark of 2021. “NASA has enlisted the support of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Space Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation Facility to ensure the system’s performance, and we are targeting certifying the unit by the end of the fourth quarter of 2021,” NASA spokesman Jeremy Eggers told SpaceNews July 28.
The successful launch comes as Rocket Lab is in the final stages of completing its merger with Vector Acquisition Corp., a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), announced in March. The merger would provide Rocket Lab with $750 million in capital and value the company at $4.1 billion.
Shareholders of Vector Acquisition Corp. are scheduled to vote on the merger Aug. 20, the last major milestone before the merger closes.
Rocket Lab returns to service with “flawless” launch for U.S. military
Resuming launches after a mission failure two months ago, Rocket Lab successfully placed a small U.S. military research and development satellite into orbit Thursday following a fiery liftoff from New Zealand on a flight that was originally supposed to launch from the company’s new pad in Virginia.
The 59-foot-tall (18-meter) Electron rocket ignited its nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford engines and climbed away from Launch Complex 1 on the North Island of New Zealand at 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT) Thursday.
Liftoff from Rocket Lab’s privately-owned launch base on Mahia Peninsula occurred at 6 p.m. local time, just after sunset.
Heading east from Mahia, the rocket’s first stage burned its nine engines for about two-and-a-half minutes, followed by a six-minute firing of the second stage engine to reach a preliminary parking orbit.
A kick stage deployed from the the Electron rocket’s second stage to begin a coast across the Pacific Ocean, Central America, and the Caribbean Sea before igniting its Curie engine reach a circular orbit about 372 miles (600 kilometers) above Earth at an inclination of 37 degrees to the equator.
Rocket Lab, a California-based company founded in New Zealand, confirmed a good deployment of the U.S. military’s small experimental Monolith spacecraft about 52 minutes after liftoff.
“Payload deployed, flawless launch and mission by the team!” tweeted Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO.
The mission was the 21st flight of a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle since 2017, and the eighth to carry a payload for a U.S. military or intelligence agency customer.
It was also the first Rocket Lab mission since May 15, when an Electron rocket failed before reaching orbit with two commercial BlackSky Earth-imaging satellites.
Rocket Lab’s internal investigation, with oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration, concluded the failure was caused by a problem with the igniter system on the Electron launcher’s second stage engine.
“This induced a corruption of signals within the engine computer that caused the Rutherford engine’s thrust vector control (TVC) to deviate outside nominal parameters and resulted in the engine computer commanding zero pump speed, shutting down the engine,” Rocket Lab said in a statement earlier this month.
Live video from beamed down from the rocket May 15 showed the second stage’s kerosene-fueled Rutherford engine igniting and immediately begin to tumble about three minutes into the flight. The engine shut down prematurely after firing for a few seconds, well short of a planned six-minute burn.
The rocket and its two BlackSky payloads fell into the Pacific Ocean downrange from the launch site in New Zealand.
Rocket Lab said the igniter problem “resulted from a previously undetectable failure mode within the ignition system that occurs under a unique set of environmental pressures and conditions.”
The company said engineers found no evidence of the problem during pre-flight testing, which included more than 400 seconds of burn time for the same engine. But Rocket Lab said it was able to replicate the issue after the flight, and teams “implemented redundancies in the ignition system to prevent any future reoccurrence, including modifications to the igniter’s design and manufacture.”
The May 15 mission was the third time an Electron rocket failed to reach orbit on 20 attempts since 2017.
Engineers traced the cause of an Electron second stage failure in July 2020 to a faulty electrical connector, which detached in flight and led to an early engine shutdown, dooming seven small commercial satellites.
Rocket Lab said it implemented improved testing to better screen for bad connectors, and the company successfully launched its next Electron mission less than two months later.
Rocket Lab racked up six straight successful Electron missions before the launch failure May 15. The company’s first orbital launch attempt in 2017 failed to reach orbit due to a ground system failure that caused safety teams to send a flight termination command to the rocket.
The small launch company says it is ready to resume a busy flight cadence through the rest of the year. Rocket Lab is close to beginning launches from two new pads — one in Virginia and another adjacent to its existing launch complex in New Zealand — to accommodate a more rapid flight rate.
Thursday’s mission, designated STP-27RM, was originally supposed to launch from Rocket Lab’s new pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. But delays in NASA’s certification of the Electron rocket’s new autonomous flight safety system have kept Rocket Lab from beginning service from the Virginia launch base.
In June, officials at Wallops said they hope to complete certification of the new autonomous flight safety system by the end of the year, enabling the first Rocket Lab launch from U.S. soil. With the launch of the military’s Monolith mission moved from Virginia to New Zealand, Rocket Lab’s first flight from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops will likely launch NASA’s CAPSTONE CubeSat payload to the moon.
The CAPSTONE mission is scheduled for launch late this year, according to NASA and Rocket Lab.
The Space Test Program, which helps manage development of the military’s experimental satellites, procured the launch of the Monolith satellite with the Rocket Systems Launch Program, part of the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.
Other partners on the mission include the Defense Innovation Unit and the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, a program that books rides to orbit for small military satellites on emerging commercial small satellite launchers.
The Monolith satellite, built by the non-profit Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University, will demonstrate the use of a deployable sensor that is relatively large in mass compared to the mass of the spacecraft itself, according to the Space and Missile Systems Center.
The deployment of the sensor will change the satellite’s dynamic properties, testing the spacecraft’s ability to maintain stable attitude control, military officials said.
When the military announced the Monolith mission in 2019, officials said the satellite’s sensor package is aimed at space weather monitoring.
Data from the Monolith mission will help engineers design future small satellites to host deployable sensors, such as weather monitoring instruments. The Space Force said that will help reduce the cost, complexity, and development timelines of future missions.
“The satellite will also provide a platform to test future space protection capabilities,” the Space Force said.
Rocket Lab did not attempt to recover the Electron rocket’s first stage booster on Thursday’s mission. The company has retrieved two Electron boosters from the Pacific Ocean as engineers move toward reusing the rocket’s first stage, an innovation Rocket Lab says will allow for a faster launch rate and lower costs.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is sized to deliver small satellites to orbit, providing a dedicated ride for spacecraft that would otherwise have to fly as a lower-priority payload on a larger launch vehicle.
The Electron rocket can deliver a payload of up to 440 pounds (200 kilograms) to a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit, about 1% of the lift capability of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher. Rocket Lab sells dedicated Electron missions for as little as $7 million.