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Rocket Lab Electron roll-out ahead of upcoming US Space Force mission

Stephen Kuper

Rocket Lab has announced the successful roll-out of an Electron launch vehicle to the Launch Complex 2 pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia, for the first time.

Rocket Lab Electron roll-out ahead of upcoming US Space Force mission
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The milestone is one of the final steps ahead of Rocket Lab’s first launch from Launch Complex 2 – a dedicated mission in partnership with the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program and the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Small Launch and Targets Division. 

Rocket Lab engineers and technicians carried out a range of successful integrated systems tests to verify launch systems on Electron and on the ground systems at Launch Complex 2.

The critical checks included raising Electron vertical on the Launch Complex 2 pad for the first time, activating and tuning pad fluid systems, power and communication checkouts as well as RF testing with the range.

The test campaign concluded with a hot ignition test of the nine Rutherford engines on Electron’s first stage.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and chief executive, said the upcoming mission from Launch Complex 2 marks the beginning of rapid, responsive small satellite launch capability for US government missions from US soil.

“We’re proud to be partnering with the US Space Force for the first mission from Launch Complex 2 and we’re honoured to be working with them again following previous STP missions out of Launch Complex 1,” Beck said.

The STP-27RM mission will launch a single micro-sat from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Monolith program, which is designed to determine the ability of small satellites to support large aperture payloads to monitor space weather.

The mission is being co-ordinated by the US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and is scheduled to launch no earlier than the third quarter of 2020.

NASA certification for Rocket Lab’s Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS), a system that has already been successfully flown on several missions from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.

David Pierce, Wallops Flight Facility director, said, “For almost 20 years NASA and the DoD have been working to develop an AFTS system that is available for use by all Range Users within ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) that can greatly reduce the cost of access to space.”

NASA expects to complete the certification in time for the Q3 launch window. The STP-27RM mission will mark the first time an AFTS has flown from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and represents a valuable new capability for the spaceport.

“Through our partnership with Rocket Lab on previous Electron launches and on this historic US Air Force mission, we’re able to further our efforts to commercialise AFTS and increase launch responsiveness at US ranges,” Pierce added.

AFTS is a GPS-aided, computer-controlled system designed to terminate an off-nominal flight, replacing traditional human-in-the-loop monitoring systems.

AFTS is crucial to increasing launch frequency and providing responsive launch capability, while maintaining the highest industry safety standards.

It reduces the turnaround time between missions and provides greater schedule control by eliminating reliance on ground-assets and human flight termination operators.

“For more than two years Rocket Lab has been providing responsive, dedicated and reliable access to space for government missions, and now we’re proud to be building on that strong heritage with our first mission from the United States. Combined, our two launch sites can support more than 130 launch opportunities every year, enabling unmatched schedule control for small satellite operators to respond to unfolding opportunities in low-Earth orbit and beyond,” Beck added.

With Launch Complex 2 complete and entering an operational phase, work continues on the construction of a Rocket Lab Integration and Control Facility nearby, which will house a launch control centre, payload integration facilities, offices and a pre-launch integration area for multiple Electron vehicles.

Shaun D’Mello, Rocket Lab’s vice president of launch, said the Electron launch vehicle and ground systems at Launch Complex 2 performed seamlessly throughout the test campaign.

Future missions scheduled for lift-off from Launch Complex 2 include a pathfinding mission for NASA to the moon called CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment).

“My sincere thanks go to the crews at Rocket Lab and Virginia Space whose hard work, commitment, and attention to detail enabled a smooth test campaign to verify the new launch pad and Electron for flight,” D’Mello added.

The mission will see a NASA satellite launched to a unique near rectilinear halo orbit around the moon to determine navigational capabilities for future missions.

Data gathered by this mission will inform NASA’s plans for Gateway – a space station planned for lunar orbit that will act as an outpost for astronauts before they descend to the lunar surface. The CAPSTONE mission is currently scheduled to launch in early 2021.

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