DARPA turns to space startup Rocket Lab for experimental satellite launch
It hasn't been an entirely smooth sailing so far for Rocket Lab, but the New Zealand-based startup is starting to turn some important heads in the space scene. The company has today announced its next launch will be used to lift a satellite into orbit for DARPA, following a first-of-a-kind launch for NASA launch last month.
Though the company was beset by a string of technical troubles throughout 2018, Rocket Lab was able to carry out its commercial launches in November and December last year using its Electron rocket. The latter of these was the first mission under NASA's Venture Class Launch Services program, which aims to lift satellites into space on smaller, dedicated, purpose-built spacecraft, rather than packing them in around bigger payloads on larger launch vehicles.
The payload for the upcoming DARPA launch is an experimental satellite designed to demonstrate a new kind of membrane reflect-array antenna. Made from tissue-thin Kapton membranes, the satellite packs up tightly for launch and will then unfurl to a diameter of 2.25 meters (7.3 ft) when it gets to low Earth orbit, where it is hoped to open new doors in the realm of radio communications.
With plans to produce one of its Electron rockets every week and recently opening a new factory to that effect, Rocket Lab aims to become a rapid and flexible launch service provider, and says with its two launch sites it can launch to orbit every 72 hours. The DARPA mission scheduled for late February will lift off from its launch site on New Zealand's Māhia Peninsula, and the company says it will be the first of monthly launches across 2019.
"Rapid acquisition of small satellite launch capabilities is increasingly important to US Government organizations like DARPA," says Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. "The ability to rapidly space-qualify new technology and deploy space-based assets with confidence on short notice is a service that didn't exist for dedicated small satellites until now. We're honored to provide Electron's agile and flexible launch service to DARPA and we look forward to delivering the innovative R3D2 payload to orbit."
Source: Rocket Lab