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Rocket Lab to support DARPA Electron mission

Rocket Lab to support DARPA Electron mission

Stephen Kuper

Rocket Lab has announced that its first launch mission of 2019 would see the launch of a specialised satellite for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency from the company’s launch site in New Zealand. 

The 150kg satellite is a key component of DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) mission, which is scheduled for launch in late February. DARPA intends to space-qualify a prototype reflect array antenna to improve radio communications in small spacecraft. The antenna, made of a tissue-thin Kapton membrane, packs tightly inside the small satellite for stowage during launch, before deploying to its full size of 2.25 metres in diameter once it reaches low Earth orbit.

The mission highlights the US government’s demand for the type of responsive, ultra-flexible and rapidly acquired launch service that characterises the Rocket Lab launch experience on Electron.

This high compaction ratio enables larger antennas in smaller satellites, enabling satellite owners to take advantage of volume-limited launch opportunities while still providing significant capability. The mission could help validate emerging concepts for a resilient sensor and data transport layer in low Earth orbit – a capability that does not exist today, but one which could revolutionise global communications by laying the groundwork for a space-based internet.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said, “Rapid acquisition of small satellite launch capabilities is increasingly important to US government organizations like DARPA. The ability to rapidly space-qualify new technology and deploy space-based assets with confidence on short notice is a service that didn’t exist for dedicated small satellites until now.”

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The mission, the first of monthly Electron launches this year, will lift off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula of New Zealand. To ensure precise insertion and responsible orbital deployment, the R3D2 payload will be deployed via the Electron Kick Stage to a circular orbit.

“We’re honored to provide Electron’s agile and flexible launch service to DARPA and we look forward to delivering the innovative R3D2 payload to orbit,” Beck said. 

Using this unique launch method, Electron’s second stage is left in a highly elliptical orbit where the stage is subject to significant atmospheric drag, causing it to de-orbit and burn up to nothing in a reduced time frame. The Kick Stage is then used to deploy the satellite payload to a precise orbit, following which the Kick Stage can perform a de-orbit burn to speed up its re-entry, leaving no orbital debris behind in space.

The Rocket Lab Electron launch experience is the world’s first customised small satellite launch service. With the choice of two Rocket Lab launch sites, and the ability to rapidly launch to orbit as frequently as every 72 hours, each mission is tailored to the customer requirements.

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