WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. – Small satellite launch company Rocket Lab made its debut off US soil on Tuesday (January 24), paving the way for potential monthly flights from the US East Coast.
A Rocket Lab Electron booster launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility here with three commercial radio frequency satellites for the customer HawkEye 360 on board.
The move took place at 6:00 PM EST (2300 GMT), about 45 minutes after sunset. The rocket lit up the twilight sky over Virginia’s Eastern Shore with a booming roar, soaring above the stars of the constellation Orion as it orbited.
“Electron lifting from Launch Complex 2, leaving US soil for the first time and heading for space, up and over the Atlantic!” Murielle Baker, Rocket Lab’s chief communications officer, said during a webcast of Tuesday’s launch.
The three satellites were deployed as planned at an altitude of approximately 550 kilometers just under an hour after launch. However, news of this success was delayed by approximately 35 minutes, because a communications receiving ground station malfunctioned.
Related: Facts about the smallsat launching company Rocket Lab
Tuesday’s launch, dubbed “Virginia Is for Launch Lovers” (a play on the state’s tourism motto “Virginia Is for Lovers”), was years in the making for Rocket Lab, which until now has launched Electron missions only from its two pads on Mahia- peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island.
The launch site in Virginia is part of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport for commercial launches from Wallops. Rocket Lab completed its construction at the US site in 2020.
“We are incredibly excited about the capability we bring to Virginia by delivering responsive launches for our customers from US soil, and we are also proud of the opportunities it creates for the local community by creating high-skilled jobs and bringing high-tech manufacturing to the East Coast ,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a pre-launch statement (opens in a new tab). The new pad will offer additional flexibility for US commercial, military and government flights, he added.
Rocket Lab hoped to begin launches from Wallops in 2020, but delays with a NASA-developed autonomous flight termination system needed for Electron launches from the area caused years of delays. The system is automated safety software designed to help rockets self-terminate if they go off course during flight.
NASA Wallops Flight Facility Director David Pierce said the agency found a number of bugs in the software that required correction and further testing by NASA, the US Space Force and the Federal Aviation Administration. These issues were resolved by mid-December 2022, with only bad weather preventing a launch attempt on 18 December.
“It’s been nothing short of a Herculean effort to get us to this point, which I see as a turning point in the launch space, not just at Wallops, but across the United States,” Pierce told reporters ahead of Rocket Lab’s first launch attempt . last month.
Rocket Lab’s US debut was the first of three planned missions for Virginia-based customer HawkEye 360, which is building a constellation of small satellites for radio frequency surveillance. The company will fly a total of 15 HawkEye 360 satellites by 2024 under the agreement, with Tuesday’s launch bringing the company’s fifth batch of satellites overall.
“For our fifth cluster of next-generation satellites, we needed optimal orbital flexibility, and Rocket Lab’s new Electron launch pad in Wallops, Virginia provides the perfect domestic capability,” HawkEye 360 CEO John Serafini said in another prelaunch statement (opens in a new tab). “Rocket Labs’ first launch facilitates our first mid-latitude satellite cluster, which will strengthen the diversity of our geospatial insights for our government and commercial customers around the world.”
Rocket Lab currently plans to launch about one Electron mission a month from the Wallops pad. The company is building a larger reusable rocket called the Neutron that will also fly from the Virginia pad. The first flight of the neutron rocket is expected in 2024 at the earliest.
The Electron has always been a consumable vehicle, but Rocket Lab is working on making the first stage reusable. The company has recovered and analyzed electron boosters on several orbital missions to date, on one occasion even plucking a falling first stage out of the sky with a helicopter. However, there was no recovery attempt on “Virginia Is for Launch Lovers.”