Small satellite launcher Rocket Lab unveiled the company’s second launch site this morning — a just-finished pad built at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island in Virginia. Dubbed Launch Complex 2, the location will be used along with Rocket Lab’s primary launch site in New Zealand to up the frequency of the company’s launches in the years ahead. That way, operators of small satellites have more options for how to get their payloads into orbit.
Since it started launching rockets in 2017, Rocket Lab has flown 10 flights so far with its Electron rocket, which is a relatively small vehicle standing at just 55 feet tall. Its purpose is to loft relatively small payloads into low orbits above Earth, capitalizing on the recent trend of satellites being made smaller and more cheaply. So far, the Electron has had nearly seamless commercial flights and launched a total of 47 satellites. And all of the flights have taken place out of Rocket Lab’s launch facility on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.
Rocket Lab wants to fly a lot, though, eventually getting up to 130 launches a year. With such an ambitious goal in mind, the company decided to open a second launch site in the US to cater to more customers and allow for more launch opportunities. Rocket Lab landed on building at Wallops, as the site is already home to other active launchpads at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The infrastructure to support flights was already in place. However, Wallops is not as busy as NASA’s other big spaceport, Cape Canaveral, Florida. “There’s a lot going on at the Cape right now, with lots of different launch providers launching out of there,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told The Verge when it made the announcement about the site selection. “Whereas Wallops is comparatively very quiet.”
The new location should make it easier for some satellite operators in the US to get their payloads to the launchpad, according to Rocket Lab. The new location will also allow the Electron to fly to different orbits that are harder to get to from New Zealand. The Virginia site will serve as a great place for customers that need to travel diagonally over the equator, while customers flying from New Zealand usually go into orbits that run from pole to pole.
“With the choice of two Rocket Lab launch sites offering more than 130 launch opportunities each year, our customers enjoy unmatched control over their launch schedule and orbital requirements,” Beck said in a statement. “Rocket Lab has made frequent, reliable and responsive access to space the new normal for small satellites.” At the moment, Rocket Lab is averaging about one launch every couple of months.
It’s taken Rocket Lab less than a year to bring the Wallops launch site to life; the company says it only began construction in February of this year. Now, the pad is set to support its first launch in the second quarter of 2020. The first Electron mission from Wallops will entail launching an experimental microsatellite for the US Air Force as part of the agency’s Space Test Program. Called Monolith, the satellite will test out if small-sized vehicles can carry payloads designed to study space weather. Rocket Lab already launched three satellites for the same Air Force program earlier this year.
Now with its second site ready, Rocket Lab has quite a few other long-term projects to focus on. Along with increasing its launch frequency, the company is also trying something new by developing a method to recover its rockets after launch. The technique is quite different from how SpaceX recovers its rockets, though; Rocket Lab envisions catching its Electron rocket in midair with a helicopter after it comes back from space. So far, the company has seen some success on the road to achieving this goal. The company successfully performed a “guided reentry” of its Electron rocket on a recent flight, showing that the vehicle can come back to Earth in one piece.
In the meantime, Rocket Lab’s next launch is about a month away, with the company aiming to fly the Electron again in the first few weeks of January 2020.