California-based Rocket Lab plans to make its orbital Electron rocket, pictured before a launch from New Zealand in June, reusable.
ORLANDO, Fla., Nov. 4 (UPI) — Small launch company Rocket Lab has a big agenda for the end of 2020, including plans for its first liftoff from U.S. soil and its first attempt to recover a first-stage booster after launch.
The California-based company, known for launching in New Zealand, is on target to tackle both goals this year, founder and CEO Peter Beck said in an interview Tuesday.
If Rocket Lab’s first launch from Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is successful, the company intends to launch regularly from that site.
“We have an agreement to fly 12 times a year from Virginia and we hope to fill those slots,” Beck said. “The pad and the integration facility will house multiple Electron rockets at the same time. Our facility there is designed for rapid response launches.”
NASA taps Rocket Lab to launch CubeSat to lunar orbit
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is considered a small vehicle, capable of lifting about 660 pounds of payload to orbit.
But satellites have shrunk dramatically in size over the past decade along with microelectronics. Many satellites were the size of a van or bus in the past — modern Cubesats are about the size of a toaster oven or smaller.
Rocket Lab’s next planned launch, on Nov. 15 in New Zealand, will carry 30 mini-satellites.
In the meantime, the company partnered with NASA and the state of Virginia to upgrade launch facilities near NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility about 160 miles southeast of Washington D.C.
Rocket Lab’s first launch from Virginia will carry a small weather satellite for the U.S. Space Force.
The company is ready to launch, but is waiting on NASA to sign off on verification of automated flight-termination software for the mission, Beck said.
Such software, designed to destroy the rocket in case it flies off course, must be certified for each new launch site where it is used, he said.
“The rocket is on the pad, ready to go, and we’ve had our … launch rehearsals,” Beck said.
Rocket Lab intends to use a much different system to recover its first-stage booster than SpaceX, which flies boosters back to launch pads using liquid propellant fuel.
Instead, Rocket Lab will fly the booster back into the atmosphere on a specific path. It will then deploy parachutes, slow down and eventually get snagged by a helicopter.
After testing the parachutes and descent systems several times, the company believes any risk to the overall mission is “very, very low,” Beck said.
The first attempt to recover a booster, still intended for 2020, will be on a flight with a paying customer, but none of the systems needed for booster recovery will be activated until the payload is deployed, Beck said.