Rocket Lab has revealed that its 14th mission last Friday not only launched an Earth observation satellite for client Capella Space.
It also successfully deployed First Light - a test version of Rocket Lab's new Photon spacecraft that has become New Zealand's first operational satellite in orbit - if you focus on its point of launch. Rocket Lab, valued at $1.7 billion is now majority US-owned.
First Light has a camera, which will shortly be opened to commercial customers who want to commission satellite photos. Or, as Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck put to the Herald, "You can get your laptop to dial in and get to it to take photos.''
Although First Light has a camera, Beck emphasises that the Photon can host any sort of small payload.
Photon is a satellite platform designed in-house by Rocket Lab, which builds on its Kick Stage - the component of one of its Electron rockets that guides a satellite into orbit.
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The idea behind it is that Rocket Lab takes care of all of the elements that get a space craft into orbit then keep it there - from propulsion to avionics to solar power cells to radiation hardening. That means a client can concentrate purely on whatever payload they want to send into space.
Photon - 4.05m high and 1.2m diameter - is powered by Rocket Lab's trademarked Curie engine, will also be used as the Kiwi-American company assists Nasa with its Capstone mission to return to the moon.
The Photon was designed and built by an inhouse-team - but with its efforts bolstered by Rocket Lab's purchase of Canadian satellite company Sinclair Interplanetary in March.
Beck said the satellite platform, known as a bus, could be an even bigger disrupter to the space industry than the Electron, a small, comparatively inexpensive way of getting equipment into low-Earth orbit.
"The opportunity for satellites is enormous and could triple Rocket Lab's business," Beck told the Herald this morning.
Rocket Lab bills the Photon as highly customisable; a "blank canvas" that gives clients a lot of freedom in how they design their payload, rather than having to make compromises to shoe-horn it into a standardised satellite platform.
"We started with launch and solved it, releasing small satellites from the time and orbit constraints experienced when flying on larger launch vehicles," Beck said. "Now we've simplified satellites too.
"Launching the first Photon mission marks a major turning point for space users – it's now easier to launch and operate a space mission than it has ever been. When our customers choose a launch-plus-spacecraft mission with Electron and Photon, they immediately eliminate the complexity, risk, and delays associated with having to build their own satellite hardware and procure a separate launch."
How the secret second launch played out
First Light was deployed to orbit on Rocket Lab's 14th Electron mission, "I Can't Believe It's Not Optical", which lifted off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in Mahia last Friday.
Approximately 60 minutes after lift-off, Electron deployed a 100kg microsatellite for Capella Space, an action that would typically signal the successful completion of a standard Rocket Lab mission.
However, shortly after deploying the customer payload, Rocket Lab conducted an entirely new operation for the first time: its engineers sent a command to transition the Kick Stage into Photon satellite mode.
Rocket Lab says this marked the first on-orbit demonstration of Rocket Lab's Photon satellite as a two-in-one spacecraft, first using it to complete its conventional launch vehicle function to deploy customer satellites, then transitioning into a satellite to continue a standalone mission.
First Light paves the way for future, high-energy variations of Photon designed for lunar and interplanetary missions, including the Capsone mission to the moon for Nasa in early 2021, Rocket Lab said.
Lifting off from Launch Complex 2 in Virginia, Rocket Lab will use the Electron rocket and Photon Lunar spacecraft to launch Nasa's Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (Capstone) CubeSat to Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO), the same orbit planned for Artemis.