Rocket Lab brings NASA to orbit in a whole new way

Wairoa, New Zealand – Rocket Lab delivered 13 student and research CubeSats into sun-synchronous orbit on 16 Dec 2018. Liftoff was just after 0633 UT as the summer afternoon sun pierced through scattered clouds at Māhia LC-1. The two-stage Electron rocket with Curie kickstage carried the payloads to a circular 500 km × 85° orbit.

This mission is Rocket Lab’s fourth orbital launch, the third in 2018, and the second in a little over a month. Rocket Lab has set an ambitious goal of reaching one launch per week in 2019. In November, Electron was proven for commercial flight, and now, Rocket Lab has proven Electron for NASA’s non-commercial payloads.

For NASA, the launch is the intersection of two initiatives, the Venture Class Launch Systems (VCLS) program, which provides opportunities for the new generation of smaller rockets, and the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program, which expands access to space for CubeSat payloads from schools and universities. The most important aspect of a mission like ELaNa 19 is the sheer amount of talent it generates. Every ELaNa mission represents a team of students and researchers that gain top-to-bottom space development skills.

History, old and new

Electron 4 was named “This one’s for Pickering” in honour of William Pickering – a New Zealander who lead the Jet Propulsion Laboratory between 1954 and 1976. Under Pickering, JPL became part of NASA, and developed a series of legendary spacecraft, from Explorer 1 through Voyager 2.

In such a busy month for spaceflight, it is easy to lose track of all the firsts. On 3 December, ELaNa payloads participated in the SSO-A mission, where a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg AFB deployed an all micro/nanosat payload to a similar sun-synchronous orbit. On Thursday 13 Dec, in the first NASA VCLS mission, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity flew 8 ELaNa payloads past the McDowell Line to the edge of space. With this mission, Electron is the first orbital launcher from the VCLS program to reach orbit.

Launch manifest

ALBUS3Power, Alloy HingesNASA Glenn
CeREs3Energetic ParticlesNASA Goddard
CHOMPTT3Gravimetry, SatNavU of Florida
CubeSail3Solar SailUIUC
DaVinci3Comm / TrainingSchool (Rathdrum, ID)
ISX CP113Radio / IonosphereCalPoly
NMTSat3Space WeatherNew Mexico Tech
RSat3Robot ArmsNaval Academy
Shields-13Radiation ProtectionNASA Langley
STF-13Space WeatherWVU
TOMSat AC11A EagleScout3Earth ObservationAerospace Corporation
TOMSat AC11B R33Earth ObservationAerospace Corporation
SHFT 13Radio / Ionosphere

What’s next in smallsat?

The next Electron launch will be from Māhia in early 2019. Rocket Lab will also complete its Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia during the new year. The race is on for the next great small satellite launcher! Virgin Orbit may well be the next to put a payload in orbit, though Vector-R, Astra Rocket 1, or EOS Firefly Alpha are all still in the running.

Update: Added SHFT 1 to manifest