Over the weekend, Rocket Lab conducted its third successful launch, putting 13 small satellites into orbit for NASA on Sunday, December 16. It marks the third launch for 2018 and the start of a monthly launch cadence for the company.
The Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)-19 took place from the Rocket Lab LC-1 complex in New Zealand at 7:30 PM local time. It was NASA’s first dedicated flights for cubesats under the organization’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) agreement. Previously, NASA cubesats have been hitchhikers, getting to orbit on a space-available basis on other launch vehicles or going up to the International Space Station (ISS) on a cargo supply run and then later released out of an airlock. VCLS enables NASA to secure reserved flights for cubesats, enabling researchers to put satellites into orbit faster rather than having to scrounge space on a bigger launch and being dependent upon a third-party’s schedule.
Rocket Lab has put a total of 24 small satellites into orbit this year and is already working towards its next flight in January 2019. The company expects to launch on a monthly basis through the first half of 2019 and then move to a faster cadence, with flights taking place both at LC-1 in New Zealand and the new LC-2 facility being built at NASA Wallops Flight Facility.
And Rocket Lab plans to crank up the flight rates significantly. The company’s recently finished factory in New Zealand can produce a rocket per week, a rate that may not satisfy pent-up commercial and R&D demand to put smaller satellites into more quickly. Start-up firms in the Internet of Things (IoT) and imaging sectors plan to deploy constellations with hundreds of satellites. One of the key benchmarks for establishing legitimacy to investors and customers is having working satellites in orbit rather than PowerPoint and promises on the ground, so there’s an urgency among firms to find rides to orbit