Rocket Lab’s year has been bookended nicely with successful launches. The startup, which uses 3D printing for its rockets’ primary components, including the engine, launched its second rocket and reached orbit for the first time in January. And yesterday, just a month after its first successful commercial flight, Rocket Lab launched its first mission for NASA, deploying 13 CubeSat satellites into space. That makes 24 total satellites that Rocket Lab has launched this year – and the company is looking at a future of sending up many, many more.
On Sunday December 16th at 6:33 UTC, Rocket Lab’s Electron Launch vehicle successfully lifted off from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. After reaching an elliptical orbit, Electron’s Curie engine-powered kick stage separated from the rocket’s second stage before reaching a circular orbit about 500 km above Earth. By 56 minutes into the mission, the 13 CubeSats on board had been individually deployed to their designated orbits.
The mission has been named “Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)-19,” and it’s the first mission to ever carry NASA CubeSats on their own dedicated ride on a commercial launch vehicle. Normally, small satellites only make it into space on larger launch vehicles that are going up for different reasons, meaning that the owners of the small satellites don’t always get to be picky about orbit locations or timing. Rocket Lab’s goal is to give small satellite customers more options and more control, with the ability to choose when they launch and where they go.
“The ELaNa-19 mission was a significant one for NASA, the Rocket Lab team and the small satellite industry overall. To launch two missions just five weeks apart, and in the first year of orbital flights, is unprecedented. It’s exactly what the small satellite industry desperately needs, and Rocket Lab is proud to be delivering it. Regular and reliable launch is now a reality for small satellites. The wait is over,” said Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck. “We’re providing small satellite customers with more control than they’ve ever had, enabling them to launch on their own schedule, to precise orbits, as frequently as they need to.”
The CubeSats have been assigned various research projects; one, for example, will measure radiation levels in the Van Allen belts to help researchers better understand possible effects on spacecraft. Another has been designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of small, 3D printed robotic arms, and another will test technology for a new solar-sailing system that could allow small spacecraft to explore deep space.
“The CubeSats of ELaNa-19 represent a large variety of scientific objectives and technology demonstrations,” said NASA ELaNa-19 Mission Manager Justin Treptow. “With this the first launch of a Venture Class Launch Service on the Rocket Lab Electron, NASA now has an option to match our small satellite missions with a dedicated small launch vehicle to place these satellites in an optimal orbit to achieve big results.”
The next Electron rocket launch will take place from Launch Complex 1 in January 2019. 2019 could also see the first launches from US soil, as Rocket Lab has announced that it also plans to fly from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. We expect 3D printing to play a decisive role in the development of launch vehicles, space vehicles, and structures in space. In repairing space vehicles and passengers 3D printing will also play a crucial role. The future of 3D printing and the space industry are truly intertwined and Rocket Labs is an early success story.
You can watch the launch below:
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