Sunday, January 21, 2018

Electron Soars to Orbit on Rocket Lab’s 'Still Testing' Flight

Rocket Lab successfully launched its second Electron rocket on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

On Sunday, January 21, at 2:43 p.m. NZDT (01:43 GMT), Rocket Lab successfully completed the second test flight of the company’s Electron rocket from their own Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand. The test, simply called “Still Testing,” was previously slated for December 2017, but after exhausting most of their 10-day launch window, Rocket Lab postponed until this month.

The new 9-day launch window officially opened at 2:30 p.m. New Zealand Time (01:30 GMT) on January 20, 2018. Each day permitted a four-hour window for the launch attempt. The first day of the window, weather concerns and two “rogue” boats in the water caused enough delays that a scrub was called. Fortunately for the company, that was the only scrub day this time around.

Liftoff occurred shortly after the launch window opened on the second day. At about two and a half minutes into the flight, the first stage separated successfully and the second stage, powered by a variant of Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engine that’s designed for the vacuum of space, ignited as intended. At about three minutes, the carbon-composite payload fairing separated correctly. The vehicle reached orbit about eight minutes after liftoff, and the payloads were deployed successfully.

This flight, despite being a test, carried three small commercial satellites, including two weather- and ship-tracking Lemur-2 satellites for Spire Global and one Earth-imaging Dove satellite for Planet Labs. These three CubeSats all joined existing satellite constellations for their respective companies. 

The first stage of the Electron rocket is powered by nine Rutherford engines, designed in-house at Rocket Lab and named for New Zealand-born British physicist Ernest Rutherford. Additive manufacturing, also called 3D printing, is used to manufacture all of the engine’s primary components, which means an entire engine takes just three days to build.

Each Rutherford is capable of 4,600 pounds-force of thrust with a specific impulse of 327 seconds, and is fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1, which is a highly refined version of kerosene. The engine’s carbon-composite tanks were specially designed in order to be compatible with the liquid oxygen. The Rutherford’s turbopump uses brushless DC motors and high-performance lithium polymer batteries instead of gas turbines, which makes the whole design simpler thermodynamically and possible to modify with software changes as necessary.

The first test flight of the Electron, called “It’s a Test,” occurred on May 25, 2017, with the launch vehicle making it to space – but not achieving orbit. The flight was terminated early due to a data loss time-out, which Rocket Lab has attributed to a problem with a third-party contractor’s telemetry equipment. The problem did not plague this second flight.

“Increased access to space will vastly improve humanity’s ability to build orbital infrastructure, such as constellations of weather- and Earth-imaging satellites. These will provide more data about our planet and enable us as a species to make informed decisions about how we better manage our impact,” said Rocket Lab founder, CEO, and CTO Peter Beck. “This test launch is a crucial next step in gathering more data from Electron so we can deliver on this future.” 

Written by: Rae Botsford End
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