First-of-a-kind Rocket Lab launch lets NASA CubeSats ride to space in luxury
Normally when smaller satellites need to be fired into space, they are packed in around bigger payloads on larger launch vehicles as a kind of ride-sharing arrangement. NASA's Venture Class Launch Services program aims to use a new breed of smaller rockets to let them ride in luxury on their own personal, purpose-built spacecraft. The agency has carried out its very first launch as part of this endeavor, with 13 of its CubeSats lifted into orbit by Rocket Lab, a space startup who itself has experienced an eventful year.
Rocket Lab first emerged in 2013 as a private space startup aiming to shake things up through a lighter and simpler rocket design. Its Electron rocket is based on the Rutherford engine, using an electric turbopump engine burning a cocktail of liquid oxygen and a highly refined kerosene called RP-1.
Because its primary components can be 3D printed, Rocket Lab has some lofty ambitions when it comes to manufacturing, hoping to roll one Electron launcher off the production line and into space each week. It recently opened a massive new rocket factory in Auckland to further that goal.
Meanwhile, it has been putting the Electron rocket through its paces with a series of test launches and, more recently, dipped its toes in the waters of commercial spaceflight. It first reached space as part of that testing in May 2017, then reached orbit for the first time in January this year to deploy a set of small satellites.
Then last month, it carried out a commercial mission called "It's Business Time" that deployed a further six customer satellites into orbit, following a string of delays brought on by technical troubles. It has now backed that up with its third such mission as the very first service provider for NASA's Venture Class Launch Services program.
The mission, called Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)-19, lifted off from Rocket Lab's launch complex on New Zealand's Māhia Peninsula and 56 minutes later had successfully deployed 13 small satellites into their specific orbits. These CubeSats are the handiwork of more than 250 students and include solar sail demonstrators, space weather instruments and mobile repair platforms for larger spacecraft.
"The CubeSats of ELaNa-19 represent a large variety of scientific objectives and technology demonstrations," says NASA ELaNa-19 Mission Manager Justin Treptow. "With this the first launch of a Venture Class Launch Service on the Rocket Lab Electron, NASA now has an option to match our small satellite missions with a dedicated small launch vehicle to place these satellites in an optimal orbit to achieve big results."
Rocket Lab is one of two foundational providers for NASA's Venture Class Launch Services, with Virgin Orbit the other awardee. Like Rocket Lab, it is taking a novel approach to spacefaring with an innovative vehicle design, using a modified 747 to fire rockets into space from altitude. Unlike Rocket Lab, it is yet to reach orbit, though things seem to be coming along rather nicely.
With its own private launch complex and high-volume manufacturing facility, Rocket Lab hopes to ramp things up from here and carry out high-frequency launches in 2019.
"We're providing small satellite customers with more control than they've ever had, enabling them to launch on their own schedule, to precise orbits, as frequently as they need to," says Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck.
You can learn more about NASA's Venture Class Launch Services program in the video below.
Source: Rocket Lab