WASHINGTON – Rocket Lab performed its long-awaited first Electron launch from Virginia on January 24, placing three HawkEye 360 satellites into orbit.
The Electron rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, at 6 p.m. Eastern. The two-stage Electron placed a kick pin in orbit a little more than nine minutes after liftoff. That kick stage, after a circularization burn, deployed its payloads about an hour after liftoff, although confirmation of the deployment was delayed by more than half an hour due to a ground station problem.
Electron carried three satellites for HawkEye 360, the Herndon, Virginia-based company that provides radio frequency (RF) intelligence services. The “Cluster 6” satellites, deployed in a 550 kilometer orbit with an inclination of 40.5 degrees, will join the company’s constellation to locate and monitor terrestrial RF sources.
The mission, dubbed “Virginia Is For Launch Lovers” by Rocket Lab, was the company’s first LC-2 launch. The company’s previous 32 Electron launches took place from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.
Rocket Lab had been working for years to set up a US launch site to support the government and other customers who wanted to launch domestically. The company broke ground on LC-2 in October 2018 and declared the site complete in December 2019, with plans to conduct the first launch by mid-2020.
However, delays in the certification of NASA-developed autonomous flight termination software set back the launch by years. The NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU) was finally certified in October 2022 and handed over to Rocket Lab, which integrated it into a system it called Pegasus on the Electron.
Rocket Lab had planned to carry out the launch in December, but was delayed by several problems, from bad weather to range-related paperwork involving NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration that took longer to resolve than expected.
The paperwork was particularly frustrating for Rocket Lab since it appeared just days before a planned launch. “This is the first time, and there will always be some teething problems,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in an interview in mid-December. “I guess we’re just frustrated that these teething problems didn’t happen six months ago. It happened literally days before we were ready to launch.”
The launch is the first of the year for Rocket Lab, which said in an earnings release in November that it planned about 14 Electron launches in 2023 after completing nine in 2022. The company estimated that four to six of those launches would take place from Wallops, including two launches this spring to deploy NASA’s four Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) cubesats under a task order NASA announced in November.
Beck said in December that customer preference is an important factor in deciding which launch site to use. HawkEye 360, for example, specifically chose to launch from Wallops since it is also based in Virginia. US government agencies are also likely to use Wallops for their Electron launches. However, he said LC-1 in New Zealand is likely to host most Electron launches, as the company has full control of the launch area there.