Rocket Lab Confirms Successful Launch from Wallops

Rocket Lab Confirms Successful Launch from Wallops

After a tense wait for confirmation of payload deployment, Rocket Lab was finally able to declare its first launch from the United States a success this evening. The liftoff of the Electron rocket from Wallops Island on the coast of Virginia was flawless, but problems with a ground station in Australia delayed the good news that the three Hawkeye 360 satellites were safely in their planned orbit.

All of Rocket Lab’s previous launches have been from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand. The company now has successfully put 155 satellites into orbit after 30 launch successes and three failures.

Electron can launch just 300 kilograms to low Earth orbit, but it came along just as demand mushroomed for cubesats and other small satellites.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket on the pad at Wallops Island, VA minutes before launch on January 24, 2023. Screengrab.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck decided that a launch site in the United States would expand the market for U.S. customers, especially in the national security sector. He picked the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA to build Launch Complex 2.

MARS is operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority and is also home to Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket that sends Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.

The FAA approved Rocket Lab’s operator license in 2020, but the first Electron launch was delayed while NASA completed development of an Autonomous Flight Control System that can be used for Electron and other rockets.

Everything was finally set to put three Hawkeye 360 satellites into a 550 kilometer sunsynchronous orbit last month in a mission whimsically dubbed “Virginia is for Launch Lovers,” a take off on the Commonwealth’s “Virginia is for Lovers” motto.

Unfortunately, the launch was scrubbed due to unacceptably high upper level winds. They decided to wait until after the holidays and planned to try again yesterday, but once again the weather intervened.

Today, finally, the weather cooperated and launch at 6:00 pm ET was flawless.

Rocket Lab’s webcast hosts cheerfully passed along news about successful performance of the first and second stages, but the final step was firing a kick stage called Curie to put the satellites into their operational orbit.

A signal that the engine fired successfully and the spacecraft were deployed was expected as they passed over a ground station in Australia, but there was nothing.  “We have a nervous wait here on the webcast,” the hosts confided as minutes ticked by. Finally they said the ground station in Australia went offline just at the wrong moment so everyone would have to wait until the spacecraft were in range of the next ground station on the West Coast of the United States.

Trajectory of the Electron kick stage and its three-satellite payload as they silently passed over Australia. The signal was finally acquired when they reached the next ground station on the U.S. West Coast. Screengrab.

Finally, the good news came: “Payload separation confirmed.”

Hawkeye 360 cheered the news that its newest group of satellites was safe and sound.

That brings the company’s constellation of satellites to 15. The satellites map or “geolocate” radio frequency transmissions revealing “previously invisible knowledge about activities around the world.” One application that has proven especially useful since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is detection of both unintentional and deliberate GPS interference.  The satellites are launched in “clusters” of three. This was Cluster 6. The first Cluster consisted of proof-of-concept satellites. Clusters 2-6 are operational.

Rocket Lab is developing a larger rocket, Neutron, that will be manufactured and launched at Wallops Island, which is expected to be a boon for employment along the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia (DELMARVA) peninsula. The much more capable rocket will be able to lift 13,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit or 1,500 kilograms to Mars or Venus.

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