Rocket Lab Ready For First Launch from the U.S. Tonight with New AFTS System

Rocket Lab Ready For First Launch from the U.S. Tonight with New AFTS System

Rocket Lab is getting ready to launch the Electron rocket for the first time from the United States. The launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia is scheduled for 6:00 pm ET tonight. The launch is important not only because it gives Rocket Lab a foothold in the U.S. in addition to its home in New Zealand, but is the first use of a new NASA-developed Autonomous Flight Termination System expected to significantly reduce the cost of launch operations and increase launch cadence. [NEW UPDATE: The December 18 launch was scrubbed due to upper level winds. Initially Rocket Lab was going to try again on December 19, but they’ve concluded winds will still be a problem. They are assessing when the next launch attempt will be made.]

Rocket Lab has 32 launches (including three failures) of its Electron rocket under its belt already, but all have been from Launch Complex-1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand. This is the first from Launch Complex-2, which also will be used for its new, bigger Neutron rocket. Electron can place 300 kilograms into low Earth orbit. Neutron will significantly increase that to 13,000 kg.

Launching from U.S. soil is a requirement for some U.S. government customers, so adding Wallops expands Rocket Lab’s customer base.

The first launch was supposed to take place more than a year ago, but challenges in developing the AFTS system delayed everything. NASA Wallops Flight Facility Director David Pierce told reporters during a media briefing on Thursday that software problems took a long time to fix.

The NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU) was supposed to be ready by mid-2020, but “we discovered a number of errors in the software code.” A NASA, U.S. Space Force, FAA team worked to fix the problems and get NAFTU through the certification process. Independent testing that began early this year found more bugs that had to be fixed, followed by an independent certification process that was completed in October. Then Rocket Lab had to modify NASA’s generic software for use with Electron and get it approved by the FAA.

Weather and paperwork delayed the launch a few more days, but the rocket is now vertical on the launch pad ready to go at 6:00 pm ET.

Weather could still be a problem, though. The company tweeted this afternoon that upper level winds are starting to pick up.

The launch window is open for two hours, through 8:00 pm ET.  Depending on cloudiness, the nightime launch could be visible as far west as West Virginia, as far south as South Carolina and as far north as New England. Rocket Lab will webcast the launch on YouTube as well.

Launch visibility map for Rocket Lab’s Electron launch “Virginia is for Launch Lovers.” Credit: NASA

Rocket Lab assigns whimsical names to its launches.  This one is “Virgina is for Launch Lovers,” a takeoff on the Commonwealth’s “Virginia is for Lovers” motto.

Aboard the rocket today are three satellites for Hawkeye-360, a Radio Frequency (RF) data analytics company based in Herndon, VA.

This is just the first of what are expected to be many launches of both Electron and Neutron from Wallops. Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said they not only will launch Neutron from Wallops, but they’re building a manufacturing facility there. He expects to hire “hundreds” of employees. Pierce and Roosevelt “Ted” Mercer, CEO and Executive Director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, or Virginia Space, said they anticipate a significant boost to economic development throughout the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia (DELMARVA) peninsula and elsewhere in Virginia.

Pierce is just as excited about the potential of the NAFTU software. The software is available to any launch company through NASA’s technology transfer program to modify for their vehicles. He said 18 companies have already contacted NASA to get it. “The NAFTU system is going to enable launch companies of the Venture class, smaller launch companies, to come [to] Wallops and be able to launch at an increased cadence, but also enable lower cost launch operations. We estimate this could reduce launch range costs by as much as 30 percent at our range.”

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