Hermes or Icarus? Can Rocket Lab support its bold claims of payload capacity?


By Serg Kenzorov

In September 2016 The Government of New Zealand signed an agreement and a contract authorising Rocket Lab’s space activities in the country and pledging its support for the duration of their launch operations, including construction of the launch complex and launch preparations.

Three years have passed since then, during which Rocket Lab has made several launches and is now preparing for the inaugural mission with 150 kg of payload, which is scheduled on March 24, 10:30PM.

The first Electron was launched on May 25, 2017, however it didn’t reach the desired orbit. The problem wasn’t with the first stage burn, stage separation or second stage ignition, the founder has said, but the upper stage failed to accelerate to the intended speed and the main fairing returned to the atmosphere. Also according to Peter Beck, a second Electron vehicle had already been built and was sitting in the company’s factory at the time. The following launch was planned to be in the summer of 2017 and commercial launches – at the end of that year.

In 2018 Rocket Lab has successfully launched a three-stage version of Electron twice:

Still Testing – the launch on January 21 has put four objects into orbit: three small satellite payloads for Planet and Spire to carry out advanced Earth-imaging, as well as weather monitoring and ship tracking: Dove Pioneer and Lemur-2 72, 73, as well as Humanity Star, a passive satellite designed to produce flares visible from Earth. The total mass of the payload was around 23 kg;

It’s Business Time – November 11. The launch date was initially set to be in April, however it was postponed twice after unusual behavior had been identified in a motor controller during a rehearsal. Seven objects were launched into orbit: three weather-monitoring satellites CICERO 10, Lemur-2 82 and 83, two IoT communication satellite pathfinders Proxima 1, 2, an educational camera payload from the Irvine CubeSat STEM Program and NABEO 1, a drag sail technology demonstrator. The total payload mass reached 24,3 kg. According to NASA Spaceflight, Rocket Lab has made a statement, claiming a total mass of 40 for this mission, however two Proxima satellites were included two weeks before the launch.

Rocket Lab’s third successful orbital mission for 2018 was conducted on December 16 and put several NASA payloads weighing around 60 kg into LEO.

However all the described missions don’t even come close to the upcoming 150 kg launch, which will determine if the Electron vehicle is truly capable of supporting its nominal payload. Best of luck to the Rocket Lab team!