Rocket Lab launches its two-in-one satellite for deep space missions
Rocket Lab made a successful return to service by launching a customer’s satellite into orbit earlier this week, but that deployment wasn’t the only cause for celebration. The team also managed to insert its own house-built Photon satellite into orbit as part of the same flight, it revealed today, marking the first outing for a spacecraft it hopes to one day send to the Moon, and possibly beyond.
New Zealand’s Rocket Lab has been delivering satellites to orbit at a steady rate over the past couple of years, carrying out missions for NASA, DARPA and the US Air Force. Last Sunday it put a July launchpad failure behind it with a successful mission for Capella Space, in which a 100-kg (220-lb) satellite was placed into orbit following a clean launch and stage separation.
Soon after that, however, the team initiated a new procedure in which a secondary payload was inserted into orbit. This involved the Electron rocket’s Kick Stage, which is a powerful extra stage built into the launch vehicle that uses a cold gas reaction control system to deploy satellites into highly precise orbits. But the Kick Stage is no one trick pony.
The team sent commands that effectively caused the Kick Stage to transition into a Photon satellite. We learned a little about this new family of satellites last year, when Rocket Lab revealed its ambitions to expand its services and deliver small satellites and payloads to medium, geostationary and lunar orbits.
The Photon satellite is built for use on everything from low-Earth orbit missions to those involving other planets. It can provide navigation, communications and power support for smaller satellites, but also take on a life of its own as a full-feature spacecraft, with its own propulsion system for orbital maneuvers and capacity for S-band telemetry at up to 512 kbps.
The Photon is designed to take on different configurations depending on the mission brief, but the unit launched into space this week is called First Light. This deployment was the first demonstration of the Photon satellite as a two-in-one spacecraft, deploying the customer satellite as the Kick Stage, before becoming a small satellite of its very own.
“Launching the first Photon mission marks a major turning point for space users – it’s now easier to launch and operate a space mission than it has ever been,” says Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck.
Source: Rocket Lab