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Spaceflight startup Rocket Lab will try again this month to launch its small rocket to orbit

A second attempt at a second test flight

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, to be used for the upcoming flight “Still Testing.”
Image: Rocket Lab

After failing to launch last month, US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab will try again at the end of January to get its experimental rocket to orbit. The company plans to launch the vehicle, called the Electron, from its New Zealand facility sometime during a nine-day window that begins on January 20th. If all goes well, it could be the last test flight before Rocket Lab begins commercial flights in the coming year.

This will be Rocket Lab’s second attempt at this test flight called “Still Testing.” The original plan was to launch “Still Testing” in December during a 10-day launch window, but the mission was delayed multiple times because of less-than-ideal weather and technical glitches. The company got close to launching on December 12th, getting all the way to a final countdown. However, the Electron’s engines ignited and then quickly shut off after computers detected that the rocket’s propellant was getting too warm. As a result, the rocket released a short burst of exhaust plumes but remained on the launch pad.

A crucial goal of this second test is to get the Electron to orbit, which the rocket hasn’t done yet. So far, Rocket Lab has only launched the Electron once during a flight test in May, and although the vehicle made it to space, it failed to achieve orbit. The problem was traced back to a glitch in some communication equipment on the ground, provided by a third party. The equipment briefly lost contact with the rocket, prompting it to abort its mission. Rocket Lab claims that the Electron would have reached orbit if the communications blackout hadn’t occurred, and the company says it has fixed the problem so it shouldn’t happen again.

Though this mission is technically a test, the Electron will actually have three small commercial payloads on board: a Dove imaging satellite, made by Planet, and two Lemur satellites from Spire, designed to track ships and weather. Deploying these satellites into orbit will serve as crucial practice for the Electron and will allow Rocket Lab to gather data about the rocket’s capability to release payloads in space.

Ultimately, putting tiny satellites into orbit is the crux of Rocket Lab’s business model. The Electron stands at just 55 feet tall and is only capable of launching cargo weighing between 330 to 500 pounds to lower Earth orbit. It’s a relatively light load compared to the capabilities of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, for instance, which can loft 50,000 pounds to a similar altitude. That’s because Rocket Lab isn’t interested in competing with the likes of SpaceX, but instead hopes to provide a launcher dedicated solely to small satellite operators. Currently, small satellites usually get to space by hitching rides on much larger rockets that are already launching huge satellites. But with Rocket Lab, operators can potentially purchase an entire Electron, starting at just $4.9 million per launch. (For comparison, the price of an entire Falcon 9 starts at $62 million.)

But first, the Electron needs to demonstrate it can get a satellite to orbit. When the test window opens, Rocket Lab can launch each day during a four-hour period beginning at 2:30PM in New Zealand (or 8:30PM the night before for the US East Coast). “Once again, 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,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said in a statement.

The company plans to live stream the launch again, too. Coverage should begin about 15 minutes before a flight attempt on Rocket Lab’s website and YouTube account. Since takeoff time is expected to change frequently, keep an eye out on Rocket Lab’s Twitter to see when the company will make its next attempt to launch the Electron.