Rocket Lab Launches First NASA Mission

New Zealand-founded spaceflight startup Rocket Lab has launched 13 tiny satellites on its first-ever mission for NASA, just a month after acing its first commercial flight.

All of the payloads separated from the Electron’s “kick stage” after 53 minutes and settled successfully into a circular orbit about 500km above Earth.

The little satellites will do a variety of work up there. For example, one will measure radiation levels in the Van Allen belts, to help researchers better understand possible effects on spacecraft. Another aims to demonstrate the effectiveness of compact, 3D-printed robotic arms; and yet another will help prove out technology for a new solar-sailing system that could allow small spacecraft to explore deep space, Rocket Lab representatives said.

California-based Rocket Lab aims to greatly increase access to space using the expendable Electron, which is 17m tall and can carry about 227kg to Earth orbit on each $5 million mission. (The ELaNa-19 cubesats together weigh about 78 kg, Rocket Lab representatives said.)

ELaNa-19 is part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites programme, which aims to spur and maintain young people’s interest in science, technology, engineering and math. The mission marked the first time that NASA cubesats have not had to share a rocket ride with a much bigger “primary payload,” Rocket Lab representatives said. (Ten of the 13 satellites are specific ELaNa payloads; the other three are also NASA cubesats, Rocket Lab spokeswoman Morgan Bailey told Space.com.)

The ELaNa-19 launch followed relatively quickly on the heels of ‘It’s Business Time’, Rocket Lab’s first commercial mission. ‘It’s Business Time’ lifted off on 10 December from Mahia Peninsula, carrying six small satellites and a technology-demonstrating “drag sail” to orbit.

Not all Rocket Lab missions will take off from the Mahia Peninsula site. The company recently announced that it also plans to fly from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia; the first liftoffs from US soil could take place as early as next year, Rocket Lab representatives have said.

Original article by Mike Wall, Space.com, December 16, 2018.

Photo by Rocket Lab.


Tags: ELaNa-19 cubesats  Electron  Mahia Peninsula  NASA  Rocket Lab  space.com  

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