Sunday 21 January 2018

Rocket Lab today successfully launched its homegrown Electron rocket, delivering three satellites into orbit, in what appeared to be a flawless flight.

Liftoff occurred at 2:43pm NZDT from Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand - a picturesque location on the East Coast of the North Island, on a relatively picture-perfect day.

After 8 minutes, 31 seconds of flight it deployed three small satellite payloads - a Dove Pioneer earth-imaging satellite from Planet, and two Lemur-2 satellites for weather and ship-tracking company Spire.

Constant "nominal" claims throughout the webcast suggest that the flight went to plan. Space tracking catalogued the first object as 43163 (2018-010A), and recorded it in a 289 by 533-Kilometer orbit, 82.93°. The target was 300 x 500 km, 83° inclination.

2 for 2

This was the second launch of an Electron rocket. The second flight, nicked-named "Still Testing", came less than 7 months after the flight of "Its a Test" on 25 May 2017. That rocket was successfully launched into space, but shortly after stage-separation, signals from the rocket were temporarily lost - and so range safety officers followed procedure and terminated the flight.

Analysis from Rocket Lab's own telemetry showed that "This is a Test" was on the correct trajectory and performing normally, and that a misconfiguration of third-party equipment had caused the telemetry drop-out.

While the first flight can only be considered a partial-success, it's not unusual for rockets to fail (e.g. explode) during their testing regime. Rocket Lab should be very proud of their track-record to-date.

The much-anticipated orbital launch

Rocket Lab had hoped to launch "Still Testing" in December, but shortly after the engine ignited, the computer aborted the flight, moments before liftoff. The vehicle was safe, and was prepped for another launch attempt - but the weather was not suitable for the remainder of their 10-day launch window.

The launch-abort was caused by higher temperatures in a liquid oxygen feeder, where a chill-down bleed procedure failed to accomodate the warm conditions of the day. While technically safe to launch, conservative test-phase thresholds meant the computer auto-aborted.

After rescheduling to January 2018, they were initially delayed again. On the first day, two rogue vessels were within the marine exclusion area, aborting the countdown at T-1 minute. Rocket Lab needed to wait for the vessels to vacate the area, and then for some other space traffic passing overhead (e.g. ISS) to clear the skies, before resetting the clock. A minor avionics glitch caused another temporary delay, and then ultimately launch attempts for the day were called off due to high-altitude winds.

On the second day, they achieved an on-time launch with no issues.

What next?

Rocket Lab currently has five Electron launch vehicles in production. Founder Peter Beck has previously indicated that if the second flight was successful, Rocket Lab would look to skip the planned third test flight, and commence commercial operations.

While a launch date has not yet been set, previous indications were for another launch in early 2018. Stay tuned.

Rocket Lab is also contracted to launch Moon Express's MX-1E lander. Moon Express had hoped to win a share of the Google Lunar X-Prize, but only have until 31 March 2018 to achieve lunar orbit and/or landing.

Watch the highlights:

Click on the icon in the lower-left, to unmute the audio.

View the full, unedited webcast.

Webcast Images

Click for larger version.

Stage Separation

Moments before SECO (Secondary engine cutoff) and payload deployment

Mission Control Auckland

Previous Launch Attempts

Rocket Lab had originally hoped to launch mid-Dec 2017, but due to weather conditions, and a minor issue, were unable to. They are retrying in early 2018.

The full-length, untrimmed webcast can be found here.

20 Jan 2018 (Saturday)

A launch attempt was manually scrubbed at T-2 minutes, due to two rogue ships in launch area. They reset, but due to other space traffic (e.g. ISS), a minor avionics issue, and then deteriorating weather - were unable to resume countdown.

12 Dec 2017

The flight computer aborted during the ignition process, at T-2 seconds prior to planned lift-off. The vehicle appeared safe, but insufficient time remained in the launch window, to reset and try again.

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