Rocket Lab Reveals Second Spacecraft on Recent Launch

Rocket Lab Reveals Second Spacecraft on Recent Launch

Rocket Lab is back in the news today. After successfully launching its Electron rocket on Sunday night for the first time since a failure two months ago and then getting an FAA operator’s license for its new Virginia launch site, the company revealed that a second spacecraft was aboard that Sunday launch — First Light, a technology demonstration of its Photon spacecraft.

Sunday’s launch (Monday at its New Zealand launch site), the return-to-flight of the Electron rocket just two months after a failure that doomed seven satellites, made headlines as it placed a 100 kilogram synthetic aperture radar satellite in orbit for Capella Space. Rocket Lab said it thus had placed 54 satellites in orbit over its 12 successful missions.

Today it upped that to 55.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck made the announcement in a YouTube video and media briefing where he shared not only the existence of the spacecraft, but his big plans for future missions, including sending one to Venus.

The company has been developing its self-funded Photon in-house for one year, Beck said.  Its existence was known because NASA will use one for the CAPSTONE mission that Electron will send to lunar orbit next year.

What was not known until now is that a technology demonstration of the Photon spacecraft was aboard Sunday’s launch.

This is not the first time Rocket Lab has briefly withheld information from the public about all the passengers aboard its rockets. In 2018 it secretly launched “Humanity Star” — a one meter (three foot) diameter reflective sphere intended to capture the public’s attention and broaden their thinking.  It reentered two months later, much earlier than planned.

This time, it is a test of the company’s Photon spacecraft, which is the Electron rocket’s kick stage modified to remain in space and perform additional tasks.

Beck told reporters today it is “really configurable” for commercial, civil and national security mission in Earth orbit and beyond.

His personal passion is Venus and he wants that mission to be privately funded, primarily by Rocket Lab. “It puts a flag in the ground” and will be a “turning point in space” to have missions to other planets funded by the private sector instead of governments.  It is “where we need to go.”

Why Venus?  “Venus has gotten a bit of a tough rap,” Beck said.  Mars is “incredible,” but Venus is more intriguing because it is “Earth gone wrong.”  There is a lot to learn relevant to climate change and there are “three places in our solar system that may have some kind of origin of life or life and one of those is in the Venusian clouds.”  He wants to probe those clouds. “We may find something or we may not,” but whatever happens it will result in a lot of scientific data.

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