US space startup Rocket Lab sets new date for first commercial launch

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US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab has scheduled new dates for its first commercial rocket launch — a mission dubbed “It’s Business Time.” The company plans to launch its small rocket, the Electron, sometime between June 23rd and July 6th. The rocket will take off from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launchpad and carry five small satellites to orbit for customers, kicking off a busy year of commercial operations for the launch provider.

Rocket Lab originally hoped to do this mission back in April, but the company had to postpone after it noticed some strange behavior with the rocket. After propping up the Electron on the launchpad and filling it with fuel, the engineering team found that a critical motor responsible for controlling the pumps inside the engines was acting funny. So Rocket Lab decided to stand down to figure out what was causing the issue. “It’s been a really tough one to determine the root cause,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck tells The Verge. “It wasn’t particularly obvious.”

After a few months, Beck says the company has it figured out and made a few changes to the vehicle to ensure that motor works properly. During the stand down, Rocket Lab decided to add a couple more satellites to the manifest for It’s Business Time. Originally this mission was only going to send up two small Lemur-2 satellites made by Spire Global, as well as another probe made by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. Now, it’ll also include a research satellite built by students and a special test satellite that will demonstrate a flat, reflective sail. The tech will help the probe get dragged down to Earth faster, helping clear satellites from space when they’re done with their missions.

This will be the third launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle. The company pulled off two successful test launches — one in May of last year and one in January — before deciding to move to commercial flights. During the first test launch, the rocket made it to space, but it didn’t reach orbit due to a glitch in communications equipment on the ground. The second test, however, did achieve orbit and deposited three satellites as well as a disco-ball-like sphere made by Beck himself. Originally, Rocket Lab had planned to do a third test flight, but it decided that it had gathered enough data with its two tests to start business operations.


Earth as seen from Rocket Lab’s Electron.
Image: Rocket Lab

Once this commercial flight gets off the ground, Beck maintains that Rocket Lab has a full couple of years ahead. “There’s no space available in 2018, and we’re putting more flights on in 2019 to allow for more space,” says Beck. The next flight after It’s Business Time will be one for NASA, sending up 11 standardized small satellites called CubeSats.

Rocket Lab’s goal is to be a dedicated launcher of small satellites. That’s why its primary rocket isn’t very big. The Electron stands at just 55 feet tall and is capable of putting between 330 and 500 pounds of cargo into low Earth orbit. In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is 230 feet tall and can put 50,000 pounds into the same orbit. Rocket Lab’s idea is to capitalize on the small satellite revolution, in which manufacturers are making spacecraft smaller and faster than ever before. To that end, Rocket Lab also hopes to be able to get satellites into orbit as quickly as possible, eventually getting to a point where the company can launch every 72 hours.

It’ll be a while before that happens, but Rocket Lab’s private pad in New Zealand is licensed to launch every three days. For now, the company is focused on getting to one launch a month by the end of the year. “We’ll get to one a month pretty quickly, but even the time it’s taken us to go from a test flight to full commercial — from an industry standpoint — is very rapid,” says Beck.

Rocket Lab plans to live-stream the launch of It’s Business Time, and the company will give updates about a more concrete launch date closer to June 23rd. Rocket Lab has the option to launch each day of the window between 12:30PM and 4:30PM in New Zealand. Follow Rocket Lab’s Twitter account to figure out where and when to watch the Electron take flight.



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