Rocket Lab Electron at LC-2, NASA Wallops Island (Source: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab announces Virginia Electron hot ignition test

Small launch vehicle provider Rocket Lab put an Electron vehicle on its Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia.  Tests conducted included a “hot ignition test” of the nine engines on Electron’s first stage, according to the Rocket Lab press release.

The announcement marks one of the key steps towards the first launch from LC-2 expected to take place in the third quarter of this year.  Rocket Lab’s first mission from LC-2 will be conducted for the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program and the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Small Launch and Targets Division. 

Rocket Lab successfully conducted a number of integrated systems tests to verify launch systems on both the Electron rocket and the new ground systems at LC-2.  Checks included raising Electron vertical on LC-2 for the first time, activating and tuning pad fluid systems, pad fluid systems, power and communication checkouts, and RF testing with the range. The test series finished with an ignition test of the nine Rutherford engines on Electron’s first stage.

One of the final steps before first flight from LC-2 is completion of NASA certification for Rocket Lab’s Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS), a computer-controlled system designed to terminate an “off-nominal” (i.e. bad) flight.  NASA expects to complete certification in time for the Q3 launch window.

Rocket Lab’s first mission will be the STP-27RM mission. A small satellite from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Monolith program will be put into orbit. The mission is being coordinated by the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and is scheduled to launch no earlier than the third quarter of 2020.

Work at Wallops Island continues on the construction of a Rocket Lab Integration and Control Facility nearby, which will house a launch control center, payload integration facilities, offices, and a pre-launch integration area for multiple Electron vehicles. Future missions from LC-2 include a 2021 NASA pathfinder mission to the Moon for testing navigation capabilities for future crewed missions in lunar orbit.

The Rocket Lab press release notes LC-2 testing activities were carried out “before Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued a statewide order requiring certain non-essential businesses to close to reduce the spread of COVID-19” with “maintenance of critical infrastructure continues at Launch Complex 2.  Any on-site work by employees is mission essential to the safety and integrity of the facility assets and upcoming payloads.  Rocket Lab’s critical work provides responsive access to space for the nation’s civil, defense, and national security payloads.”

Since Governor Northam issued the statewide close of non-essential businesses on March 23, 2020, it does beg the question why Rocket Lab has been sitting on this news for over a month.  Rocket Lab cut the ribbon at LC-2 in mid-December 2019 and continues to prepare for launch operations for its U.S. government customers – Department of Defense and NASA – at a rapid pace.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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