This week Rocket Lab successfully launched the first production satellite for SAR (synthetic aperture radar) operator Capella Space and the first satellite of its own manufacturer. The Rocket Lab Photon satellite is a demonstration of capabilities that will ultimately lead the company to a Venus exploration mission, as well as plenty of government and commercial business along the way.
The “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical” mission left Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) in New Zealand at 11:05 p.m. ET on August 30, 2020 onboard the 14th Electron mission and the first successful Electron launch after a flight mishap earlier this year. Rocket Lab has conducted four launches this year and put a total of 54 satellites into orbit.
Onboard the mission was Capella Space’s first production satellite Sequoia and the Rocket Lab Photon upper stage tricked out to operate as a free flying satellite after it delivered Capella’s satellite into the proper orbit. Sequoia is capable of providing sub 0.5 meter imagery of the Earth any time day or night, regardless of weather conditions and will make up a Capella Space constellation of dozens of SAR satellites delivering imagery for national security, agriculture, and commercial activity monitoring.
Rocket Lab didn’t announce its first Photon satellite mission until yesterday, September 3. The company had previously said its Photon upper stage would serve as the basis for future satellites but had not announced a timetable as to when it would send up its first one. Named “First Light,” the mission started after release of Sequoia when Rocket Lab sent up a command for the Photon to switch out of Kick Stage satellite delivery mode into satellite mode.
“We started with launch and solved it, releasing small satellites from the time and orbit constraints experienced when flying on larger launch vehicles. Now we’ve simplified satellites too,” said Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “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. When our customers choose a launch-plus-spacecraft mission with Electron and Photon, they immediately eliminate the complexity, risk, and delays associated with having to build their own satellite hardware and procure a separate launch.”
First Light is the latest in a series of building block technologies Rocket Lab is demonstrating and verifying as it evolves from a launch company to an end-to-end services company including satellite build, launch and on-orbit operations. The first Photon mission will demonstrate power management, thermal control and attitude control system capabilities for an extended period on orbit, laying the path for future missions planned to low Earth orbit, the Moon and ultimately Venus. One future Photon mission in early 2021 will be launched from Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) in Virginia to deliver a NASA cubesat into lunar orbit, supporting NASA’s efforts to return humans to the lunar surface.
Interestingly, Rocket Lab says the Photon is designed for launch on Electron “as well as other launch vehicle” – a statement suggesting the company has plans to either launch Electron on other companies’ rockets or has plans to build larger rockets.
Turnkey satellite services – SaaS if you prefer – are highly attractive to commercial companies who don’t want to operate their own satellites, civilian agencies such as NASA who want to fly sensors and payloads without building and testing a mission from scratch, and national security organizations who would like fast and flexible launch and satellite capabilities.