A Rocket Lab-owned and developed low-cost Electron launcher took off to Earth‘s orbit on Thursday from a spaceport owned by the company located in New Zealand.
The launcher was equipped with a top-secret cargo for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the United States government’s spy satellite agency. The rocket measures 55 feet (17 meters) and lifted off at 9.56 p.m. EST (02:56 GMT) from New Zealand’s North Island.
A Successful Launch
A live video streamed by Rocket Lab depicted the launcher powered by about 50,000 pounds of thrust from nine kerosene engines launch to orbit. After about two minutes of burn, the first stage shut down its engines and split up from the Electron’s second stage, which used a single engine to propel the kick stage and the cargo into an ovoid transfer orbit.
The second stage then discharged the Curie kick part of the assemblage, which powered a small thruster about 50 minutes after the take-off to propel the NRO cargo into the meant orbit for deployment.
Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said: “Starting our 2020 launch manifest with a successful mission for the NRO is an immensely proud moment for our team. It once again demonstrated our commitment to providing responsive, dedicated access to space for government small satellites.”
“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% mission success for customers,” Beck said.
The NRO hasn’t released any details about the aim or physical features of the payload it sent to orbit with Rocket Lab. The expedition was dubbed NROL-151 in the NRO’s report of satellite launches. Almost all the information about the NRO’s cargo is usually classified.
More Launches Are Scheduled at a Monthly Pace
Rocket Lab stated that it carried out a guided re-entry of the Electron booster’s first stage on the NROL-151 expedition after the split from the rocket’s first stage. Even though the Electron second stage and Curie kick stage to launch the NROL-151 cargo into Earth’s orbit, the first stage was set to utilize thrusters in order to rotate approximately 180 degrees and re-enter the atmosphere.
“Once again, initial analysis shows 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,” Rocket Lab said in a statement.
“What Rocket Lab really wants to do is open access to space,” said Alex Linossier, recovery systems lead engineer at the company. “On Flight 10 (in December), we got confirmation that the stage made it to the ocean intact, and for Flight 11, what we really want is this visual confirmation of that,” Linossier said before the take-off.
“After Flight 11 … what we’re going to start doing is adding systems onto the rocket that actually allow us to recover the rocket.”
Dissimilar to SpaceX‘s Falcon 9 rocket boosters, Electron’s first stage doesn’t have sufficient propellant left after its launch burn to try and perform a propulsive landing. That is a physics issue, according to Rocket Lab, because a small launcher has a small performance margin than a massive rocket.
Rocket Lab stated that it plans to launch to space other rockets at a monthly pace this year, after carrying out six successful expeditions last year.