A Rocket Lab Electron booster launched from Virginia’s east coast on Tuesday, putting three radio-mapping satellites into orbit in the company’s first launch from the continental United States. It was the first commercial rocket to utilize NASA-developed autonomous self-destruction software designed to reduce costs while ensuring public safety.
“This flight does not represent another launch pad for Rocket Lab,” said company founder Peter Beck. “It’s the driving force behind a new capability for the nation. It’s the new AFTS (Automatic Flight Termination) system that’s been brought online for the industry. And it’s the new rocket to Virginia and Wallops Flight Facilities.”
Delayed by a month due to inclement weather and holiday schedules, the 60-foot-tall Electron exploded at 6 p.m. flew away immediately. , Virginia, Flight Facility.
All rockets launched from the United States must carry a self-destruct system capable of quickly destroying off-course boosters before debris reaches populated areas. Past U.S. launches have seen military personnel using tracking radars and other systems ready to send suicide signals if needed.
However, SpaceX now uses a self-developed automatic self-destruct system designed specifically for the Falcon 9 rocket, requiring far fewer personnel to operate. Electron is new to his NASA software and does much the same thing but can be set up on any rocket.
David Pierce, Director of Wallops Flight Facility, said:
“To date, 18 companies have requested the software through NASA’s technology transfer process,” Pierce added. “Rocket Lab was one of the first applicants for software to enable booting from Wallops. This was a major milestone.”
After boosting the Elektron from the lower atmosphere, the nine Rutherford engines at the base of the first stage shut down and the single engine powering the second stage took over for the next seven minutes.
At that point, a third “kick” stage, carrying three HawkEye 360 radio-mapping satellites, was detached and flown alone. After kick-stage engine ignition was scheduled approximately one hour after launch, the satellite was to be released into orbit at an altitude of 341 miles.
HawkEye 360 satellites will be launched in three clusters. They are designed to scan the skies to locate and map radio transmissions from the ground, air, and space, data useful to military, law enforcement, and other civilian and commercial users.
Going into flight Tuesday, Rocket Lab launched 152 small satellites in 29 successful launches from two electronic pads.The company plans to regularly launch Electrons from Wallops, and is developing a larger, fully reusable rocket called Neutron, which it will incorporate and launch from Virginia.