Last night, Rocket Lab successfully placed two imaging satellites into orbit for real-time geospatial monitoring company BlackSky. It also successfully ran through helicopter operations for recovery of the Electron rocket first stage as a step toward reuse.
The “Love At First Insight” mission, took place on November 17, 2021 at 8:38 p.m. EDT from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Following lift-off, the Electron vehicle successfully delivered the two BlackSky Gen-2 Earth-imaging satellites to a circular 430km orbit, growing BlackSky’s constellation of real-time geospatial monitoring spacecraft and bringing the total number of satellites deployed by Rocket Lab to 107.
BlackSky now has 12 imaging satellites in orbit on its way to a constellation of 14 satellites by the end of the year. The company plans to have a final constellation of 60 satellites in orbit to get rapid imagery of the Earth’s surface. Rocket Lab has a multi-launch agreement in place with BlackSky, with five of its satellites put into low Earth Orbit (LEO) onboard Rocket Lab flights in 2019 and this year. The next two satellites are scheduled to go up in December onboard the “A Data with Destiny” mission, followed by another Electron mission carrying two more satellites into orbit.
For the first time, Rocket Lab stationed a helicopter in the offshore recovery zone to track and observe the descending first stage in preparation for future in-hair capture attempts by snagging the parachute and preventing the first stage from getting wet – sea water is not nice to anything. The helicopter successfully tracked the returning stage and completed communications tests in the recovery zone, bringing Rocket Lab a step closer to catching a rocket as it descends, bringing it back to land for refurbishment, and then launching it to space again.
“Today’s launch was a masterclass from an incredible team of engineers on how to successfully deliver customers’ satellites to space while at the same time demonstrating cutting-edge operations and innovation that pushes the space industry forward on small rocket reusability,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and CEO. “This is our third successful proof of concept recovery mission, and further cements Electron as the leading launch vehicle for the small satellite market. We are all excited to move onto the next phase of reusability next year; catching Electron in the air with a helicopter.”
Reuse is a big deal for Rocket Lab, since it would enable the company to save money on flights and increase its launch rate while it works towards building the larger reusable launch vehicle dubbed Neutron. The economics of SpaceX rideshare using Falcon 9 are stiff competition for budget-sensitive companies seeking to put satellites into orbit without paying a premium for being the sole customer onboard a dedicated small launch mission.