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Small satellite launcher Rocket Lab is poised to send up its first batch of spacecraft for NASA

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The company could finish the year strong

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket
Image: Rocket Lab/Kieran Fanning

Just a month after pulling off its first commercial launch to orbit, small satellite launcher Rocket Lab is ready to put tiny probes into space again. The company’s small Electron rocket is slated to take off again from New Zealand sometime in the next week. And this time, the company’s client is none other than NASA.

The plan is to launch 13 research satellites as part of NASA’s ELaNa-19 mission. The spacecraft going up on this flight are all derived from CubeSats, a type of standardized satellite that’s made of 10-centimeter cubes. Each one has its own unique task, such as studying the radiation belts around Earth or demonstrating new ways to propel vehicles through space. The satellites come from various NASA centers, as well as universities like the University of Florida and West Virginia University.

If Rocket Lab is able to launch this week, it’ll mark a swift turnaround from the company’s first purely commercial flight in November, a mission dubbed “It’s Business Time”. That launch, which put seven satellites into orbit, was only the third flight that Rocket Lab has ever attempted. The company had previously conducted two test flights, only one of which had made it to orbit. But Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck says that November flight was “flawless” and had great orbital accuracy. “It was an excellent ride for our customers; they’re all successfully in orbit exactly where they want,” Beck tells The Verge. “And it was good to get the second orbital flight away for the year. And then four weeks later, here we are with the next launch vehicle, this time for the NASA.”

For Rocket Lab, the journey to its first commercial flight took a bit longer than expected. The company pulled off its second test flight in January, deeming the Electron rocket ready for commercial missions. The goal originally was to do “It’s Business Time” in April, but Rocket Lab noticed some funny behavior with one of the rocket’s motor controllers, and delayed the mission for many months as it made some design and hardware changes. Ultimately, the company’s engineers were able to fix the problem, culminating with a successful flight.

“I think the industry took a new sigh of relief [after the launch]” Beck says, “because now there is a small dedicated launch vehicle in full commercial operations that’s reliably delivering customers to orbit on a frequent basis.”

The rocket that will launch the ELaNa-19 mission
Image: Rocket Lab

And that’s ultimately Rocket Lab’s mission: to be a dedicated ride for small satellites, launching as often as possible. The company isn’t interested in sending bus-sized probes into orbit. Instead, its entire business model is centered around the small satellite revolution — a trend within the aerospace industry of spacecraft getting tinier instead of larger. That’s why Rocket Lab developed the Electron, a rocket that stands at just over 55 feet tall, capable of putting between 330 and 500 pounds into orbit. It’s a tiny vehicle compared to the nearly 230-foot tall Falcon 9 for instance, but it’s perfect for putting a handful of box-sized satellites into orbit around Earth.

And for the small satellite industry, that’s an attractive feature. Up until now, small satellite operators only had a few options for getting their hardware into orbit. They could either hitch a ride as a secondary payload on a rocket launching a much bigger satellite, or they could send their vehicles to the space station as cargo, where they’d get flung out into orbit. These options aren’t exactly ideal, as they don’t allow the operators to choose the best place to deploy their satellites. A dedicated ride like Rocket Lab’s Electron does provide that customization, for around $5 million per flight.

Rocket Lab isn’t alone in this market though. There are other notable companies hoping to capitalize on launching small satellites, including Virgin Galactic’s spinoff company Virgin Orbit, and startup Vector Space. Experts have speculated about just how many small satellite launchers can actually survive, based on the demand of the industry. Beck ultimately thinks there will be some consolidation, arguing there’s only room for two or three small vehicle launch providers. And he’s fairly confident that Rocket Lab will be one of them, as the company is the only one officially in commercial operations at the moment.

“I think we’re feeling good; the proof is in the orbit,” he says. “You can put together as many PowerPoint presentations as you want, but ultimately when it comes to wanting to get a spacecraft to orbit, they come to the company that’s actually delivering them.”

The ELaNa-19 satellites mounted on Rocket Lab’s kick stage
Image: Rocket Lab

Another feature that Rocket Lab hopes will entice customers is its rocket’s kick stage — an apparatus on the top of the vehicle that acts a bit like a chauffeur in orbit. The kick stage is a platform, complete with engines, that can help carry satellites to their final intended orbits. And it can also reorient the spacecraft during flight, ensuring that they don’t accidentally hit each other when they get deployed. “A lot of these rideshare missions, they’re just kinda getting sprayed out like gravel,” Beck says of the satellite deployment process. “And there’s a real concern for recontacting of spacecraft. But with the kick stage, we can guarantee that never happens.”

Rocket Lab will demonstrate the abilities of the kick stage on the ELaNa-19 mission, which is slated to launch sometime between December 13th and December 21st in New Zealand. The company can launch each day in that window, between 5PM and 8PM NZT (which on the US East Coast is between 11PM ET and 3AM ET). Updates about the exact timing of the flight will be posted to Rocket Lab’s Twitter account, and a livestream of the event will be made available closer to the launch.

If this mission is a success, then Rocket Lab expects to have a busy 2019. There’s already an Electron rocket at the New Zealand launch site in preparation for the company’s third mission, which is tentatively scheduled for January. There are 16 missions Rocket Lab wants to do next year, and the ultimate goal is to get a bi-weekly launch cadence. The company also plans to open up its second launch site in 2019, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, with the aiming of launching the first Electron from there at the end of the year.

All in all, it’s a lot of big projects for this small launcher. “We’ll come out into 2019 having a very big year in front of us,” says Beck.