US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab is nearly ready to launch its experimental Electron rocket again. The vehicle is now scheduled to take off from New Zealand sometime during a 10-day launch window that begins on December 8th. It’ll mark the second flight of the Electron as part of the rocket’s rigorous testing program, meant to ready the vehicle for spaceflight.
Rocket Lab has been developing the Electron for four years now in order to launch small satellites. At just over 55 feet tall, the vehicle is easily overshadowed by other major commercial rockets like SpaceX’s 180-foot Falcon 9. But that’s because Rocket Lab’s goal is to only launch payloads weighing between 330 to 500 pounds. The company is offering cheap launches, too, starting at just $4.9 million, which is a small price compared to the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars that larger rockets usually cost. Rocket Lab even has its own private facility to launch from, located on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.
The Electron made it to space on its first flight, but didn’t reach orbit
But first, Rocket Lab has to show that its rocket actually works. The Electron successfully launched for the first time in May on a test mission appropriately named “It’s a Test.” While the rocket made it to space on that flight, it didn’t reach orbit. Later, Rocket Lab found out why: communication equipment on the ground briefly lost contact with the rocket during the launch, causing the flight to end early. The company claimed there was nothing wrong with the rocket itself, and if the equipment issue hadn’t occurred, the Electron would have reached orbit.
Now, the company is ready to go again. “We analyzed more than 25,000 channels of data from flight one, and we’re eager to learn more from this test flight,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said in a statement. Earlier this month, the second test vehicle arrived in New Zealand for the upcoming launch, aptly named “Still Testing.” And this time, the Electron will have payloads on board. The first flight just carried scientific instruments to collect data, but this second launch will have three small satellites: an Earth-imaging probe for the company Planet, as well as two weather and ship-tracking satellites for the company Spire.
It’s possible this could be Rocket Lab’s final test launch. Originally, the company had planned to do three test flights before the Electron was deemed ready for commercial missions, but Rocket Lab says it may skip the final test depending on how this one goes. If that does happen, the company could potentially get a jump start on its busy manifest, which Beck said was “overflowing.” A notable customer includes Moon Express, a private US company that is building a robotic lunar lander for the Google Lunar X Prize competition.
Eager space fans will get to watch this launch live, starting 15 minutes before the vehicle’s planned takeoff. Though it’s still uncertain exactly when that will be. Rocket Lab says four-hour launch windows will open every day during the 10-day testing period, each starting at 2:30PM NZT (or 8:30PM ET the previous day for us on the East Coast). And Rocket Lab warns that it will only launch if conditions are ideal, so people should expect lots of rescheduling.
“We’re expecting to scrub multiple times as we wait for perfect conditions and make sure everything on the vehicle is performing as it should,” says Beck. Those looking to see the Electron fly should keep an eye on Rocket Lab’s Twitter account, which will be providing real-time updates throughout the launch window.