WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab stretched the efficiency of the kick stage of its Electron rocket on its most up-to-date launch, the primary in a sequence of milestones the corporate has set out for this 12 months.
In the course of the Jan. 20 launch, Electron’s kick stage positioned its payload, a satellite tv for pc constructed by German firm OHB Group, right into a round orbit at an altitude of 1,200 kilometers. The kick stage fired once more to decrease the perigee of its orbit by 740 kilometers to speed up its eventual reentry.
“The final launch was fairly an advanced one,” Peter Beck, chief government of Rocket Lab, mentioned in an interview. Most Electron missions deploy their payloads at an altitude of about 500 kilometers, so the kick stage wanted to fireside its Curie engine for greater than twice the length of a normal mission. That kick stage carried double the variety of propellant tanks to hold out that mission profile.
Neither Rocket Lab nor OHB have launched many particulars concerning the satellite tv for pc on that mission, GMS-T, apart from it’s a “50-kilogram class” communications satellite tv for pc. Beck, although, mentioned that opposite to some solutions that GMS-T is for a Chinese language firm, the satellite tv for pc is “100% European.” Newer hypothesis has linked the mission to Thales Alenia House to convey into use spectrum initially meant for LeoSat.
Rocket Lab signed the contract with OHB lower than six months earlier than the launch, and Beck mentioned that type of responsiveness is a key a part of his firm’s enterprise mannequin. “The kind of buyer coming to us is searching for that high-reliability white-glove service,” he mentioned. “That type of customer support is fairly arduous to duplicate.”
That diploma of service, he argued, will set the corporate aside from each different small launch automobile corporations and rideshare providers, like SpaceX’s Transporter-1 mission that launched 143 satellites Jan. 24. SpaceX’s rideshare program particularly threatens to undercut small launchers by providing a gentle stream of low-cost launch alternatives.
“Low-cost rideshare has all the time been accessible,” he mentioned, with the distinction now that it’s being provided by SpaceX somewhat than Russian or Indian launch autos. “We nonetheless see prospects coming to us who simply can’t wait.”
The demonstration of the kick stage’s enhanced efficiency is the primary of a number of milestones Rocket Lab plans for 2021. The following Electron launch, at the moment scheduled for March, will embrace the corporate’s second Photon satellite tv for pc together with a number of business payloads.
Beck mentioned Rocket Lab will use the Photon to carry out testing to arrange for its launch of NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Expertise Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission to the moon, which can use Photon as a translunar injection stage. “The maneuvers for the CAPSTONE mission are very, very tough,” he mentioned. “That is all about constructing heritage on elements and processes.”
CAPSTONE is scheduled for launch within the second quarter on an Electron flying out of Launch Advanced 2 in Wallops Island, Virginia. That schedule will depend on closing NASA certification of the autonomous flight termination system for the rocket, a course of that has been delayed for months. Beck mentioned the corporate was nonetheless hopeful that the system will likely be permitted in time to maintain the launch on that schedule.
Rocket Lab additionally plans to open a second pad at Launch Advanced 1 in New Zealand within the second quarter. Beck mentioned the strongback construction will likely be put in on the pad “comparatively shortly,” adopted by closing commissioning.
The second quarter can even see Rocket Lab’s second try and recuperate the Electron first stage. The corporate recovered the primary stage from a Nov. 19 launch and has since been testing the stage and its elements.
That second restoration try will likely be “primarily” the identical as the primary one, he mentioned, with the primary distinction being an improved warmth protect on the base of the rocket. The corporate knew the present warmth protect wasn’t adequate to guard the stage sufficient to allow reuse, however wished on the primary flight to see how a lot further safety is required.
“The heating situation was actually good,” he mentioned of the November flight, “however we wish to decrease the heating just a little bit extra.” Engineers have reduce up the primary stage to carry out testing, together with to see how the carbon composite constructions reacted to “transient excursions into excessive heating” throughout reentry. “The outcomes look actually good proper now, however the decrease the warmth load that we will placed on the stage, the higher.”
Beck mentioned that some elements of the stage, comparable to avionics and electrical programs, “are pretty much as good because the day they flew.” These have been requalified and, in some instances, put in on different autos being assembled for future launches.
“We’re hoping to have a number of recoveries this 12 months,” he mentioned. “The objective I’ve set for the workforce for this 12 months is that, by the tip of the 12 months, we wish to get one again that’s within the situation to refly. We could not get it reflown, however we’re no less than going to get one again in a situation that’s ok to refly.”