Rocket Lab Aims for October Launch

Electron lifts off on maiden flight from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

It looks as if the next Electron flight test will take place in late October.

The second of Rocket Lab’s three planned test flights is scheduled later this year. If that launch goes well, the company will likely delete the third demonstration mission, and the first commercial Electron flight could be ready for takeoff by the end of December, [CEO Peter] Beck said last week.

“We’ve got the next test flight rolling out out to the pad in about eight weeks’ time,” Beck said. “If it’s a really good clean flight, we’ll probably accelerate into commercial operations.”

Once Rocket Lab delivers the next Electron rocket to the launch pad, ground crews will spend several weeks readying the booster, rehearsing countdown procedures, and verifying all of the vehicle’s sensors and instruments are functioning.

“This vehicle, again, has on the order of 25,000 or 30,000 sensors, so for us these flights are all about gathering data, so there’s a lot of ‘go-no go’ criteria around those sensors,” Beck said. “Usually, it takes us a good couple of weeks to get all that buttoned up, and then we’ll be ready to launch.”

One of Rocket Lab’s first commercial missions is set to send a robotic lunar lander into space for Moon Express, a Florida-based aerospace developer vying to win the Google Lunar X-Prize, which requires a successful landing on the moon by the end of 2017.

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  • Jimmy S. Overly

    I’ve been pretty impressed with this test campaign. I think two test launches in a year is impressive – their technology and fundraising is mature enough to support it and their test campaign is hardware-rich enough to turn around flights quickly. Out of curiosity, I checked the first few Falcon 1 flights – the first three were all about a year apart.

    A commenter on the SpaceflightNow article identified Alaska Aerospace Corporation (the Kodiak people) at the vendor that blew up the rocket:

    http://akaerospace.com/news/alaska-aerospace-corporation-congratulates-rocket-lab-successful-launch-new-electron-rocket

    Interesting.

  • duheagle

    Agree. Rocket Lab is well ahead of where SpaceX was at a comparable point in its history. Of course Rocket Lab’s team includes some ex-SpaceX-ers, as does seemingly every other significant U.S.-based smallsat launcher startup these days. The Electron vehicle is, in many significant ways, a miniature copy of Falcon 9 with its differences concentrated where they do the most good. SpaceX, by the mere fact of existing, has done a lot more to revitalize the American launch industry than just what it has done on its own, impressive though that be. In the process of becoming the Great White Shark of launch services, SpaceX has also accumulated an impressive school of escorting pilotfish.

    Among its other impressive accomplishments, Rocket Lab has also re-introduced an element of suspense into the Google Lunar X-Prize competition. There is now at least a reasonable possibility of someone actually winning the thing under the extant rules this year. Rocket Lab is making Moon Express look better and better, retrospectively, for its due diligence and perspicacity in choosing RL as their launch provider.

    Even the unfortunate software configuration error that doomed It’s a Test may have a bright side:

    (1) It’s a lead pipe cinch that particular error will never occur again. That would be good for both Rocket Lab and Alaska Aerospace if the former keeps the latter on as a subcontractor. That would seem the wise choice given the likelihood of some other comparable kerfuffle in the event RL chose to go with another sub-contractor at this late date, not to mention the delay such a replacement would almost certainly cause to RL’s testing program.

    (2) It provides some additional leverage to RL in negotiating the best possible deal with Alaska Aerospace for support of future launches out of Kodiak as well as their NZ launch site – and perhaps even at other places such as Kennedy/Canaveral. Adversity may have the somewhat paradoxical effect of welding these two organizations together at the hip.

  • Robert G. Oler

    good luck

  • Aerospike

    I agree that the Rocket Lab/ Moon Express Team is at least superficially keeping the GLXP suspense alive. However I would not bet my money on them actually reaching the moon before the deadline.

    (1) If there are any issues on the second test flight of Electron that need to be fixed, I think there is no way that they can be ready again before the end of the year.

    (2) Even if the second flight is a brilliant success, that still leaves them with only 1 1/2 successful flights, so there could still be some unknown factors cause issues on the third flight.

    (3) Probably even more important: We have no idea if Moon Express is actually ready to go. Apparently they are now pursuing a new lander design, that has not yet been tested. At least all the (tethered) flight test videos I’ve seen on youtube had been conducted with the old design.

    I really, really wish them success, but I’m rather pessimistic on the chances of them actually winning the GLXP.

  • duheagle

    You could well be right. But Moon Express is – perhaps fortunately – not the only would-be Moon lander company looking to fly soon. It may well work out to be the case, over the next couple years, that more former entrants in the GLXP actually get to the Moon than do those teams still officially competing.

    That’s not a criticism, by the way. Should this happen, the GLXP will have proven appreciably more successful at fostering what it was meant to foster than the original Ansari X-Prize has been anent space tourism.

  • Paul451

    Rocket Lab is well ahead of where SpaceX was at a comparable point in its history.

    Not really. RL doesn’t have a suitable engine for a larger vehicle. They are already using 9 small engines. Rutherford has a tenth the thrust of the small Fastrac engine that led to SpaceX’s Merlin.

  • Aerospike

    While Rutherford and Merlin are in no way in the same league, I think comparing the two companies on their status “how close are they to achieving orbit” at a given “age” is much more appropriate in this case.

  • Aerospike

    I completely agree with you here. With Moon Express and Astrobotic (who even decided to ignore the GLXP and go to the moon anyway) we have at least two companies that seem to be very close to starting commercial operations at the Moon and a few others who seem determined to go there as well eventually.

    Let us just hope that the commercial path to the moon does not turn into another suborbital tourism disaster, where years turn into decades and the start of any commercial activities constantly slips into the future…

  • IamGrimalkin

    But RocketLabs, to my knowledge, don’t want a larger vehicle. They think minturisation means smaller vehicles are the future. I think if anything they’ll start looking for an engine for a smaller vehicle.

  • Paul451

    they’ll start looking for an engine for a smaller vehicle.

    Given the way rockets scale, I doubt anything smaller than a single Rutherford engine would be capable of reaching LEO, let alone carrying a payload.

    (Vanguard only got 9kg to LEO, eventually upgraded to 20kg, but had a first stage thrust of 6 times Rutherford.)

  • duheagle

    Agree with IamGrimalkin that Rocket Lab is looking to stay in the “falcon 1” business rather than build something bigger.

    I’m much less certain that a smaller vehicle is in their future.

    Rocket Lab could straightforwardly build such a thing, but it would be entering a much lower-priced market against Vector and some other even smaller, cheaper rockets coming up. I don’t see a good business case for doing that.

    The Electron is ideally sized for launching clusters of cubesat-scale smallsats or smaller numbers of larger smallsats. Sticking with Electron allows Rocket Lab to incrementally improve its performance and perhaps even achieve SpaceX-style reusability. Either or both would be better uses of their capital than building a smaller rocket.

  • duheagle

    Caution is always advisable, but I think commercial Moon-landing services have one enormous advantage space tourism does not – the launchers either already exist or are well along in development. Astrobotic is going to rideshare on an Atlas V Cygnus mission. Some other team – i forget which – is going to rideshare on a Falcon 9. A third outfit is going to ride an Indian PSLV. Moon Express, of course, is going with Rocket Lab’s Electron. Only the latter is not yet operational and that may change in as little as 60 days.

    In contrast, the only proven launcher in the space tourism business is New Shepard. Lynx is pretty much dead and SpaceShipTwo continues to slow-roll. Just when even the proven New Shepard will enter regular revenue service is unknown, but sometime in 2018 looks like the earliest credible date at this point. There may have been several private-sector lunar landers sent to the lunar surface by the time the first actual paying suborbital space tourist flies.

  • Paul451

    I was responding to your “well ahead of where SpaceX was at a comparable point in its history”.

    RL was founded in 2006, SpaceX in 2002. By this stage, their 12th year, SpaceX was flying Falcon 9 and Dragon.

    Ie,
    …………..SpaceX……….RocketLab
    Year 1: .Founding………Founding.
    Year 2: …………………………………..
    Year 3: …………………………………..
    Year 4: …………………….Ātea………
    Year 5: ..F1 (1)………………………..
    Year 6: ..F1 (2)………………………..
    Year 7: ..F1 (3&4)…………………….
    Year 8: ..F1 (5)………………………..
    Year 9: ..F9 (1&2D)………………….
    Year 10: …………………………………
    Year 11: F9 (3D&4D)………………..
    Year 12: F9 (5D&6&7)..Electron…

    Ātea was a sounding rocket, launched 2kg to 120km sub-orbital.

    Falcon1 flights 1 through 3 failed. Flights 4 & 5 succeeded in putting 165kg and 180kg respectively into LEO. Falcon9 launched successfully seven times (debatably with flight 4, CRS-1). By this point, Dragon-cargo had flown 4 times and had berthed with ISS twice.

    Good luck to RL, but to compare then to SpaceX is silly. Which was my (obviously failed) point in the last comment.

  • IamGrimalkin

    The Soyuz is a proven vehicle in the space tourism business much more than New Shepard is, considering it has actually flown space tourists (also PT Scientists and SpaceIL are the ones planning to rideshare Falcon 9s)..

  • IamGrimalkin

    It is now, but it assumes that minturisation doesn’t continue past cubesats. What if further in the future something like the four gram sprite satellites replace their capacity? A much smaller launch vehicle may be needed then, and if you believe minturisation is the future, then why not that it will continue?