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Rocket Lab is now building customizable satellites

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Just add a payload and then launch

Rocket Lab’s Photon (R), positioned next to the Electron upper stage (L)
Image: Rocket Lab

Small satellite launcher Rocket Lab is getting into the business of making satellites in addition to launching them. The company announced today that it is offering a new service to customers: a standard satellite that can be tailored to anyone’s low Earth orbit business needs. Such satellites are designed to launch to orbit on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, creating a streamlined mission to space.

Rocket Lab’s offering is a circular satellite called the Photon. Capable of weighing up to 374 pounds (170 kilograms), it comes equipped with propulsion, GPS, and more. The satellite design is derived from Rocket Lab’s kick stage — a cylindrical spacecraft that the company puts at the top of its rockets to give payloads an extra boost into orbit. So far, Rocket Lab has launched its kick stage four times, giving the company a good idea of how the Photon might behave in space.

The idea to turn the kick stage into a satellite seemed like a natural next step, says Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO. “It always seemed bizarre to me that you would have a [spacecraft] that has all the same components as the satellite literally six inches away from each other,” Beck tells The Verge, referring to the Electron kick stage. “But we wouldn’t talk to each other and we’d just push each other off, and that would be the end of it. It just seemed bizarre that we would do that rather than actually just combine everything into one unit.”

The goal of the Photon project is to create a standardized satellite that can easily carry customers’ payload ideas to orbit. Often, satellite operators need to build a complex spacecraft just to house one specific sensor or camera that will gather data from space. Rocket Lab hopes to take care of the spacecraft manufacturing part, allowing customers to simply add their payload to an existing satellite design. “People don’t have to spend a whole lot of time becoming experts and building spacecraft to get their idea on orbit,” says Beck.

The Photon satellite
Image: Rocket Lab

The Photon concept is relatively similar to that of the CubeSat, a type of standardized satellite that companies, researchers, and universities have used to send their payloads into space. The CubeSat is a relatively small, box-shaped spacecraft, measuring a little less than 4 inches on all sides. The boxes can be stacked on top of each other to create larger models, which are typically the size of a cereal box. The standardization of the CubeSat design — and the fact that it’s relatively inexpensive to modify — has lowered the bar of accessing space, allowing more and more entrants into the satellite arena.

Beck argues that the Photon will allow customers to do more types of missions than a CubeSat can accomplish. “There is only a certain amount you can do with a CubeSat, because you’re constrained on volume,” he says. CubeSats can weigh as little as three pounds, but the Photon will be more than 100 times heavier. It’ll also measure about 4 feet wide — the full width of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket — providing more room to add sensors and other types of instruments.

The Photon also comes equipped with something CubeSats can’t handle: thrusters. Since the satellite is a modified Rocket Lab kick stage, it uses the same propulsion: a 3D-printed Curie engine developed by the company. That means the satellite can maneuver in orbit, either by changing its altitude or doing modest adjustments to stay on track. It also has many of the other standard features a satellite needs to have such as GPS, a flight computer, and any necessary instruments needed to reorient the vehicle in space.

Beck argues that by offering both a satellite and a rocket to launch that satellite, the process of getting payloads into orbit will be much more streamlined. “You get a lot of efficiencies by having a one-stop shop,” he says. Customers won’t have to coordinate between different companies to both manufacture a satellite and then send it to space. Rocket Lab will take care of most of the details. Satellite operators simply need to show up and attach their payload to the satellite, and then Rocket Lab will launch it. Additionally, the Photon flight computer is the same as the Electron’s, guaranteeing that the two vehicles will work together during flight.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket launching to orbit
Image: Trevor Mahlmann

Beck points to the recent mission Rocket Lab launched for DARPA that might have benefitted from this approach. DARPA simply wanted to test a new type of antenna, but had to build an entirely new spacecraft to send that antenna to space. “If you use Photon, all you would do is just bring your suitcase-sized antenna and bolt it on.” he says. “It’s done.” Such a mission would take between three to four months to get from ground to orbit, Beck says.

Customers will supposedly have different options for operating the Photon satellites when they’re in orbit. They can take control of the spacecraft or Rocket Lab can operate it. The company already operates a network of ground stations to track its Electron rockets during flight. “We can do the ground segment for you; we can do the mission segment for you; we can do the satellite management,” says Beck. “Or we can just hand over the spacecraft, and you can run your entire operations.”

Rocket Lab won’t give an exact price for the Photon, arguing that its costs vary significantly depending on the type of payload a customer wants to attach. Plus the price will change depending on how much of Rocket Lab’s management is involved. However, Beck says that one launch of the Electron starts at around $6 million, based on the launches the company has done to date.

Rocket Lab already has two customers lined up to use the Photon — one commercial operator and one from the government. The company plans to do its first demonstration flight of the Photon system later this year, but there won’t be any commercial missions of the satellite since Rocket Lab’s manifest is fully booked for 2019.

Once the Photon platform gets into full swing, Beck envisions numerous types of applications for the satellite, such as satellite television or Earth observation. There’s even the possibility of using the Photon to beam internet from space, a concept that numerous companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and now Amazon are pursuing. And for those who chose the Photon, the rocket comes guaranteed. “We have a real advantage here in that it’s a rocket and satellite all bundled together in one.”