By Alexandra Somik
Rocket Lab concluded their second successful launch of the year, putting three experimental research and development satellites into orbit on May 5th. The Electron rocket launch serves as a technology demonstration for the U.S. Department of Defense to showcase the military’s responsive launch capabilities.
Following a tweet celebrating the successful deployment of all payloads, founder of Rocket Lab Peter Beck declared
“It’s a testament to our team and mission partners that Electron has placed another three satellites in orbit, just weeks after our flawless mission for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).”
At 02:00 E.C. (18:00 NZST) on May 5th, 2019, the STP-27RD mission took flight from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 seated near Ahuriri Point within the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand’s North Island. The three satellites weighing over 397 pounds/180-kilograms combined are the most massive payload that Electron has ever delivered. This milestone marked Rocket Lab’s second successful launch for the year and their fifth orbital program overall. Their 57-foot Electron rocket deployed a 150-kilogram Harbinger satellite and two smaller CubeSats.
Harbinger is a U.S. Army Space and Missile Command spacecraft commissioned from York Space Systems. It is the first satellite built by this Denver based manufacturer focused on low-cost space technology. The inexpensive commercial satellite is equipped with a synthetic aperture radar. This allows Harbinger to supply cutting-edge earth imagery data collection with a high bandwidth throughput very quickly at a fraction of the cost of current technology.
The larger of the two CubeSats launched into orbit by Electron is Space Plug and Play Architecture Research CubeSat-1 (SPARC-1). SPARC-1 is a joint venture between the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and The Swedish National Space Agency. The six-unit CubeSat has been deployed to perform research within space situational awareness, radio communications, and modular space avionics.
The third satellite launched is the Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment (Falcon ODE) by the U.S. Air Force Academy. This one unit CubeSat is a research tool for atmospheric density that releases two sensors once in orbit. Two stainless steel bearings release which together determine changes in atmospheric background density. This allows the satellite to serve as both an optical target for connected ground-based situational awareness devices and to operate as a calibrated radar.
Electron’s deployment of these three satellites is the first launch of the U.S. Air Force’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative. It arrives just a month after Rocket Lab deployed DARPA’s R3D2 satellite from the same site. Over 2019, the Air Force has 21 payloads planned across five missions which include the most recent launch.
STP-27RD is fondly nicknamed “That’s a Funny Looking Cactus” due to the payloads being built by the U.S. National Security Space Launch program in New Mexico. SPARC-1, Falcon ODE, and Harbinger made up Electron’s second mission for 2019, and Rocket lab’s sixth project. CEO and founder Beck shared that the company has a full range of launches planned for the year, 2019’s manifest is full. In an interview during April, he also shared that this includes demonstrating Rocket Lab’s ability to successfully launch at two-week intervals by the end of the year.