Small satellite launcher Rocket Lab says it has successfully flown one of its own satellites, demonstrating that the spacecraft’s design holds up in Earth orbit. It’s the first time the company has flown its in-house cylindrical spacecraft, known as the Photon, which Rocket Lab hopes to sell to customers for use in ambitious deep-space missions.
The satellite was secretly a part of Rocket Lab’s most recent launch. On August 30th, the company’s Electron rocket took off from Rocket Lab’s primary launch site in New Zealand, lofting a single satellite for the company Capella Space. But once the satellite had separated from the rocket, part of the Electron actually turned into a satellite and remained in orbit around Earth. The satellite was Electron’s kick stage — a small platform that sits on top of the rocket, helping to give satellites on the vehicle an extra boost in space. After the satellite was deployed, Rocket Lab sent a command to make it start operating like a satellite.
“For me personally, there was a real magical moment sitting with the engineers, where we sent a command to the kick stage,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said during a live stream announcing the satellite’s launch. The company has since dubbed the satellite “First Light.”
Rocket Lab announced its intention to build its own satellites last year, using the design of its Electron kick stage. The idea behind these Photon satellites is that they can be affordably customized to help Rocket Lab’s customers get to orbit — without having to engineer their own satellites in the process. “We’re really trying to reduce the barrier here to get innovation and your ideas on orbit quickly,” Beck said.
Rocket Lab has big ambitions for the spacecraft, with a deal to send a modified version of the vehicle around the Moon for NASA. The company has even floated the idea of sending a Photon spacecraft to Venus in 2023. Beck says the prices vary based on where the spacecraft is going. The NASA mission to the Moon is roughly $10 million, for instance.
Beck says the in-flight demonstration allowed Rocket Lab to test all of the Photon satellite’s systems — including ones that might be useful on future deep-space missions. It also gave potential customers a chance to see the satellite in action. Equipped with a camera on board, the satellite took images of both itself and the Earth below. Rocket Lab plans to do more demonstration flights with Photon, iterating with each launch.
The fact that Rocket Lab launched this satellite without publicly telling anyone may rub some people the wrong way, as it wasn’t the first time the company has launched a satellite in secret. In January of 2018, Rocket Lab covertly launched its own reflective disco-ball satellite called the Humanity Star as a bit of an art project. The satellite was designed to reflect light from the Sun and shine bright in the night sky. Rocket Lab hoped it would inspire people to look up at the object and contemplate their place in the Universe. However, the stunt angered many astronomers worried the shiny satellite would be a source of light pollution that could ruin their long exposure images of the Universe. The Humanity Star didn’t last very long and plunged into Earth’s atmosphere just three months after launch.
When asked why the company didn’t announce the Photon demonstration prior to launch, Beck said he wanted to make sure they executed and delivered the product first. “Well, I kind of like to just do stuff, and make sure it’s all good and it works before announcing it,” Beck said during a press conference. He added that he hoped “this one will be a little bit less controversial than the Humanity Star.”