Space company Rocket Lab has successfully launched a secret payload for the United States National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
The Rocket Lab Electron rocket blasted off from the company’s Launch Complex One on the Māhia Peninsula of New Zealand’s north island late Friday afternoon local time.
This was Rocket Lab’s 11th Electron mission, the first launch for 2020 and the first dedicated launch of an NRO payload from New Zealand.
The mission, titled “Birds of a Feather”, was completely successful with the payload deployed into orbit.
The NRO selected Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket for the mission through a competitively awarded contract under the Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract.
RASR allows the NRO to explore new launch opportunities that can provide a streamlined, commercial approach for getting small satellites into space.
The NRO develops and launches the US intelligence satellites. Consequently, nothing has been revealed about the satellite to be launched on Birds of a Feather.
Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck said starting the 2020 launch manifest with a successful mission for the NRO was an immensely proud moment for the team.
“It once again demonstrated our commitment to providing responsive, dedicated access to space for government small satellites,” he said.
“Thank you to the NRO for selecting Electron for this historic mission, and congratulations to the Rocket Lab team on another flawless launch that continues our heritage of 100 per cent mission success for customers.”
The primary objective of this launch was to deploy the NRO payload to its final orbit, which was achieved as planned.
Rocket Lab also achieved a secondary objective by conducting another guided re-entry of Electron’s first stage in a step towards the company’s goal of reusing its rocket boosters.
This was the second time Rocket Lab has guided an Electron first stage booster down to sea level and following the first successful re-entry test conducted on the Running Out of Fingers mission in December.
Rocket Lab said initial analysis indicated the stage made it back to sea level intact following a guided descent, proving that Electron can withstand the immense heat and forces generated on re-entry.
To direct the stage to a planned splashdown, Electron’s first stage was equipped with guidance and navigation hardware, including S-band telemetry and onboard flight computer systems.
The stage was also equipped with a reaction control system to orient the booster 180-degrees for its descent and keep it dynamically stable for the re-entry.
The Birds of a Feather launch kicked off a busy year of activity for Rocket Lab, with monthly Electron launches through the year.
This will include the first US mission from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 2 in Wallops, Virginia.
Construction is also under way on a third launch pad at the New Zealand Launch Complex and at the new Rocket Lab Headquarters and Production Complex in Long Beach, California.
“2020 will also see the first launch of Rocket Lab’s in-house designed and built Photon satellites, a significant step towards offering beyond low-Earth orbit capabilities, including lunar orbits for small satellites,” the company said.
Receive the latest developments and updates on Australia’s space industry direct to your inbox. Subscribe today to Space Connect here.