Rocket Lab will make a second attempt to launch their Electron rocket for its second launch of 2019. In its sixth overall mission, Electron will place the SPARC-1, Falcon ODE, and Harbinger satellites into orbit, as part of the Space Test Program (STP). Launch is now scheduled for No Earlier Than May 5 at 6:00 UTC, from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) in New Zealand, following a day’s delay for additional payload checks.
Like all Electron missions, the rocket itself has received a special name. This rocket is named That’s a Funny Looking Cactus, for the deserts of New Mexico – where the STP is based.
The STP is part of the United States Department of Defense (DoD), and ensures that potential launch and satellite platform providers will be able to meet the needs of government customers.
The payloads for this mission are SPARC-1, Falcon ODE, and Harbinger – three tech demonstration satellites. Together, STP-27RD is the heaviest payload launched on Electron to date – over 180kg. To insert the satellites into a precise orbit, this mission will include Rocket Lab’s Curie engine-powered kick stage. The specific orbit has not been made public, although it is known to be a Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
SPARC-1 is a joint Swedish-American project, sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate (AFRL/RV). It will test miniaturized avionics, software radio systems, and carries a visible light camera to study space situational awareness concepts. It is a 6U cubesat, and will be able to switch communication frequencies when needed.
Falcon ODE is sponsored by the United States Air Force Academy, and will assist in testing ground-based tracking of space objects. It is a 1U cubesat – only 10cm across on every side, the definition of a “U” for cubesats – and will release two steel ball bearings to test and calibrate ground tracking devices.
Harbinger is a small commercial satellite built by York Space Systems, and will demonstrate that York’s S-CLASS satellite platform – and small satellites in general – can meet the needs of a government customer.
At around 150kg, it is the heaviest payload ever launched on Electron – and makes up most of the 180kg total mission mass. It will carry an X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), which can provide Earth observation data at any time – regardless of cloud cover.
The Electron launch countdown begins at T-6 hours, when the road to the launch site is closed off. At T-4 hours, the vehicle is raised vertical by the strongback, and filled with RP-1 fuel. Launch pad personnel leave the area at T-2 hours 30 minutes, and liquid oxygen (LOX) loading begins at T-2 hours.
At T-18 minutes, the launch director in mission control conducts a go/no-go poll of all the flight controllers, to ensure that the Electron, launch pad, and payloads are ready for launch.
At T-2 minutes, Electron’s computers take over and initiate the launch sequence.
Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) occurs at T+2 minutes 34 seconds, when the 9 Rutherford engines shut down. Three seconds later, the first and second stages separate, and the second stage’s Rutherford Vacuum engine ignites. The payload fairing is separated at T+3 minutes 8 seconds – as the vehicle has left the atmosphere.
Electron reaches orbit at T+8 minutes 51 seconds, and Second Engine Cutoff (SECO) occurs four seconds later. The Curie-powered kick stage – with the three payloads on top – separates at T+8 minutes 59 seconds.
The Curie engine ignites for a nearly 3-minute burn at T+49 minutes 12 seconds, and cuts off at T+51 minutes 55 seconds.
The payloads separate at T+54 minutes 14 seconds. The kick stage will then deorbit itself, to minimize the amount of debris left in orbit.
2019 will be a busy year for Rocket Lab. They currently expect to launch around 16 missions – not counting STP-27RD – throughout the rest of this year.
Additionally, in September they will have their maiden launch from LC-2, a new Electron launch pad being built at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. This new pad will be dedicated to flying lower-inclination LEO missions, which LC-1 cannot. LC-2, however, is expected to have a much lower flight rate than LC-1.
Rocket Lab is also expecting to have the debut launch of their Photon satellite bus, derived from the Electron’s kick stage, in the fourth quarter of 2019 from LC-1.
The next launch for Rocket Lab is expected to be a dedicated Planet Labs flight, launching 6 of their Dove imagery satellites to LEO No Earlier Than (NET) May 2019.