Rocket Lab has successfully launched their 16th Electron mission and deployed 30 small satellites to orbit, the largest number of satellites deployed by Electron to date on a single mission.
The ‘Return to Sender’ mission also saw Rocket Lab complete a successful splashdown and recovery of the first stage of an Electron launch vehicle for the first time, bringing the stage back to Earth under a parachute after launch. The recovery of a stage is a major milestone in Rocket Lab’s pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to increase launch frequency and reduce launch costs for small satellites.
Approximately two and a half minutes after lift-off, at an altitude of around 80 km, Electron’s first and second stages separated per standard mission procedure. Once the engines shut down on Electron’s first stage, a reaction control system re-oriented the stage 180-degrees to place it on an ideal angle for re-entry, enabling it to survive the incredible heat and pressure known as “The Wall” during its descent back to Earth. A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descended, before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometres of descent.
The stage splashed down as planned. Rocket Lab’s recovery team will transport the stage back to Rocket Lab’s production complex, where engineers will inspect the stage to gather data that will inform future recovery missions.
The ‘Return to Sender’ mission launched from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula at 15:20 UTC, 20 November 2020, deploying satellites from the below listed companies and organizations. The mission brings the total number of satellites launched by Rocket Lab to 95.
Among the payloads deployed were satellites designed to test new methods of deorbiting space debris, enable internet from space, and build upon a maritime surveillance constellation. The mission also saw New Zealand’s first student-built payload deployed to orbit, the APSS-1 satellite, which is designed to monitor electrical activity in Earth’s upper atmosphere to test whether ionospheric disturbances might be linked to earthquakes. Rocket Lab sponsored the project by providing the launch at no cost to the University of Auckland.
Joining the satellites for the ride to orbit was a mass simulator shaped like a garden gnome, launched to space in support of Starship Children’s Hospital. Manufactured by award-winning design studio Weta Workshop for Valve’s Gabe Newell, Gnome Chompski is a 150 mm, 3D printed, titanium gnome, created as a nod to an achievement in the game Half-Life 2 that sees players carry a gnome through the came before depositing him in a rocket to be launched to space.
While watching Gnome Chompski get launched to space for real was a spectacle enjoyed by gamers worldwide, Mr. Chompski also served an important R&D function by allowing Rocket Lab to test and qualify novel 3D printing techniques that could be employed for future spacecraft components. Gnome Chompski’s time in space is limited though, as he remains attached to Electron’s Kick Stage and will de-orbit with it when the stage burns up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.
For every person who watched the launch webcast, Mr. Newell donated a dollar to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Starship Children’s Hospital. More than $80,000 has so far been raised so far, and viewers still have more than 20 hours to watch the launch via YouTube at this direct link and the view will count towards the total.
Note: All article imagery is courtesy of Rocket Lab’s launch streaming site.
DRAGRACER — Organization: TriSept
The DRAGRACER mission will test the effectiveness of new tether technologies designed to accelerate spacecraft reentry and reduce orbital debris at the conclusion of space missions. TriSept has completed the integration of a pair of qualified Millennium Space Systems 6U small satellites, one featuring the tether drag device and one without. The controlled spacecraft should deorbit in approximately 45 days, while the second spacecraft is expected to remain in orbit for seven to nine years, according to Tethers Unlimited, developer of the 70-meter-long (230 feet) Terminator Tape aboard the control satellite.
BRO-2 and BRO-3 — Organization: Unseenlabs
BRO-2 and BRO-3 are the second and third satellites in French company Unseenlabs’ planned constellation of about 20 satellites dedicated to maritime surveillance. The first BRO satellite was launched to orbit by Rocket Lab in August 2019. Unseenlabs’ constellation enables improved monitoring of activities at sea, such as illegal fishing and anti-environmental behavior. Thanks to a unique proprietary technology, the BRO satellites are the first to be able to independently and precisely locate and fingerprint Radio Frequency (RF) emitters all around the globe, day or night, in any weather condition, and without requiring any special embarked tracking device. With three satellites in orbit, Unseenlabs’ clients can now benefit from the shortest revisit time available on the satellite RF geolocation market.
APSS-1 — Organization: Auckland Program for Space Systems, The University of Auckland
The student-built Waka Āmiorangi Aotearoa APSS-1 satellite is designed to monitor electrical activity in Earth’s upper atmosphere to test whether ionospheric disturbances might be linked to earthquakes. The data from this mission will deliver deeper knowledge of these hard-to-access altitudes and drive understanding of how phenomena such as solar wind and geophysical events affect this atmospheric region.
Spacebees — Organization: Swarm Technologies
Swarm will launch the latest 24 1/4U SpaceBEE satellites to continue building out its planned constellation of 150 satellites to provide affordable satellite communications services to IoT devices in remote regions around the world. Swarm’s uniquely small satellites enable the company to provide network services and user hardware at the industry’s lowest cost and deliver maximum value to customers across a range of industries including maritime shipping, agriculture, energy, and ground transportation. The SpaceBEES will be integrated into two of Rocket Lab’s 3U Maxwell CubeSat dispensers for orbital deployment.
Mass Simulator: Gnome Chompski — Organization: Gabe Newell, Founder of Valve Software
Manufactured with support from multi-award-winning design studio Weta Workshop, the unique space component is additively manufactured from titanium and printed in the shape of Half-Life gaming icon Gnome Chompski. The mission serves as an homage to the innovation and creativity of gamers worldwide, and also aims to test and qualify a novel 3D printing technique that could be employed for future spacecraft components. The 150 mm gnome will remain attached to the Kick Stage during all mission phases and will burn up upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere during the de-orbiting process.
“What the team achieved today in recovering Electron’s first stage is no mean feat. It took a monumental effort from many teams across Rocket Lab, and it’s exciting to see that work pay off in a major step towards making Electron a reusable rocket,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “It’s a privilege to once again provide access to orbit for our returning customers Unseenlabs, Swarm Technologies, and TriSept, and to deploy a satellite for the University of Auckland for the very first time,” said Mr Beck. “Thank you to our incredible customers, and to the tireless team behind Electron who delivered mission success once again.”