Rocket Lab set for takeoff on new era of launches in Virginia
Following more than two years of delays, NASA and Rocket Lab aim to open up a new launch pad with smoke and flame today as the company’s first Electron rocket will launch from the U.S., at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The mission, aptly named “Virginia is for Launch Lovers,” (a play on the state’s motto) is slated to lift off on Sunday from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-2 (LC-2) at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), sometime during a two-hour window that opens at 6 p.m. ET.
Originally estimated to blast off on Dec. 10, the launch was delayed a few times due to weather and to give NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the time to certify that Rocket Lab was ready to fly.
The 59-foot-tall Electron rocket is equipped with an automated flight termination system (FTS) designed to safely destroy the rocket if it detects an anomaly during launch.
Historically, a person oversaw the FTS data and would manually push a button; however, it is now an automated process and as such, the FAA and NASA both have strict regulations to make sure these automated systems are reliable.
Designed to launch smaller satellites into space, Electron will carry three satellites for HawkEye 360, a Virginia-based company that operates satellites capable of detecting radio frequencies. According to company officials, its system was able to detect GPS interference in Ukraine, and in other areas around the world.
Rocket Lab, arguably the most successful space startup since SpaceX, has 32 launches under its belt, 29 of which were successful. Like SpaceX, the company builds everything in-house at its headquarters in California.
Its CEO, Peter Beck, a native New Zealander and life-long space fan, founded the company in 2006 to fill a void he saw in the small satellite launch market. According to Beck, satellites kept getting smaller and smaller, but launchers weren’t downsizing in tandem, creating a need for a smaller-class rocket to help get small satellites, which may not be able to afford rides on bigger rockets, off the ground.
To date, the company has launched all of its missions from its launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. However, Rocket Lab has dreams of expanding its services to interplanetary, government and even human missions one day. To achieve these lofty goals, the company realized it needed to expand its launch operations and have a second launch pad somewhere in the U.S.
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is the world’s premier spaceport and a hub of activity, hosting more than 50 rocket launches at its various launch pads this year. But when choosing its next launch site, Beck and Rocket Lab wanted a quieter location and settled on Wallops Flight Facility.
“KSC is an amazing range, but I think everybody has to agree it’s pretty busy,” Beck said at a briefing this week. “We can achieve almost the same trajectories out of Virginia and the range is not nearly as busy. There’s a lot of room to grow here.”
The launch facility and NASA center is located near Chincoteague — a wildlife refuge made famous for its wild ponies — and has been operating for decades. It typically hosts sounding rockets and Minotaur rockets, but it’s also the home of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket, which regularly flies cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS).
With its close proximity to Washington D.C., and Electron’s ability to launch small satellites on short notice — a capability of particular interest to the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community — Wallops was an especially appealing launch location.
According to Beck, the company also plans to use Wallops for its medium-lift rocket called Neutron, which will be produced at a factory just outside the Wallops gates. Rocket Lab says Neutron will stand 130-feet-tall (40m) and will be able to carry 8 metric tonnes to low-Earth orbit and 4,400-lbs. to the moon.
With the addition of Rocket Lab, NASA and Virginia are hoping Rocket Lab’s arrival will help add Wallops to a roster of premier spaceports and in turn bring in more commercial companies.
“NASA is helping foster a growing low-Earth space economy and continues Wallop’ 35-year history of support to the commercial launch industry,” the U.S. space agency wrote in a statement.
Over the past few decades, Virginia has invested about $250 million in the launch facilities at Wallops. Additionally, NASA also has made its own investments, including $15.7 million for a mission operations control center. The hope is that the facility and the region continue to grow and one day become as bustling as Kennedy.
“We think that with the advent of the Electron with this launch cadence, it’s an opportunity for folks living in the Mid-Atlantic region, from Virginia Beach to Philadelphia, to come to launches,” David Pierce, the director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility said in a news briefing prior to the launch. “And we expect that’s going to have a dramatic impact on the local economy.”
“We’re looking to establish a pretty significant footprint here,” Beck added during the briefing. “We see a very large number of jobs to come from Electron and Neutron activities here at Wallops.”
A successful launch on Sunday would kick off what promises to be a busy future for LC-2, enabling Rocket Lab to increase its launch rate in 2023. The company has averaged approximately one per month in 2022, and according to Beck, currently has 14 launches on the books for 2023, with as many as 4-6 of those departing from Wallops.
Eventually, Rocket Lab would like to launch rockets as often as once a month from the Virginia facility
During the briefing this week, Beck said the company is “looking forward to a pretty rapid launch cadence out of Virginia right off the bat. There’s been a number of launches that are kind of pent up to be launched out of Virginia. So we’re very excited to release the floodgates on that.”
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