Rocket Lab launches US Air Forces new Space Force

Rocket Lab has successfully launched its latest Electron rocket for its client US Air Force’s new Space Force, from Launch Complex 1 at Mahia.

Watch a replay here:

The launch, which took place at 6pm, was the first since the May 15 failure of the “Running Out of Toes” flight, which was recently pinned on a failure with the Electron rocket’s second-stage ignition system.

The flight will be a crucial one for Rocket Lab, which will be looking to get at least one more successful mission under its belt before its US$4.1 billion Nasdaq listing, expected before the end of September.

The client is the US Air Force, which eschews such frivolity – specifically the USAF’s new United States Space Force (USSF) division, setup under former President Donald Trump.

The mission will deploy an Air Force Research Laboratory-sponsored demonstration satellite called Monolith, Rocket Lab said in a statement.

In a recent Business Hub interview Peter Beck reiterated that his company only launches research or “demonstrator” satellites for the military and draws the line at military-operational satellites. The CEO also repeated his argument that people have benefited from dual-use technologies developed originally for the military, including GPS, internet and weather satellites.

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Today, Rocket Lab said that the Space Force “Monolith” satellite “will explore and demonstrate the use of a deployable sensor, where the sensor’s mass is a substantial fraction of the total mass of the spacecraft, changing the spacecraft’s dynamic properties and testing ability to maintain spacecraft attitude control. Analysis from the use of a deployable sensor aims to enable the use of smaller satellite buses when building future deployable sensors such as weather satellites, thereby reducing the cost, complexity, and development timelines. The satellite will also provide a platform to test future space protection capabilities.”

The mission was procured by the Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program (STP) and the Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP) – both based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. – and in partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) as part of the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI), Rocket Lab said.

The mission is being managed by the Launch Enterprise’s Small Launch and Targets Division, which is part of the USSF’s launch organisation of choice.

The mission has been named ‘It’s a Little Chile Up Here’ in “a nod to the beloved green chile of New Mexico where the Space Test Program is based.”

‘It’s a Little Chile Up Here’ will be Rocket Lab’s fourth launch for the year and the company’s 21st Electron launch overall.

Originally slated for lift-off from Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia, the mission has been transferred to Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) in New Zealand while NASA continues certification processes for autonomous flight termination system software for launches from LC-2, Rocket Lab said.

Beck told the Herald that Rocket Lab’s larger Neutron rocket will launch exclusively from Launch Complex 2 in Virginia from 2024, lifting constellations of satellites into space for the US Department of Defense plus commercial clients.

“The Neutron will initially launch out of the United States for industrial base reasons,” Beck says.

“To give you a sense of the scale, if we took all the liquid oxygen that’s produced in New Zealand, we’d only fill half the tank, let alone all the other kind of logistics that are associated with these very, very large launch vehicles.”

Beck said most launches for the smaller Electron rocket would continue to be from Mahia, however.

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