Rocket Lab and NASA have carried out the integration of the cubesat payloads scheduled to launch on the Electron rocket in the first half of 2018 for NASA’s first ever Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) mission.
The flight will constitute the smallest class of dedicated launch services used by NASA and marks a significant milestone for Rocket Lab in providing such access to space for a NASA-sponsored mission of small satellites. The launch is manifested with innovative research and development payloads from NASA and educational institutions that will conduct a wide variety of new, on orbit science. Applications of the cubesats booked on the mission include research such as measuring radiation in the Van Allen belts to understand their impact on spacecraft, through to monitoring space weather.
Big ideas used to require big rockets, but thanks to the miniaturization of technology, the smallsats of today can conduct innovative science that helps us better understand the Earth and the universe. Before Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle, launch opportunities for smallsats were mostly limited to rideshare-type arrangements on large launch vehicles, flying only when space was available on NASA and other launches. This can be impractical for some small satellite payloads, as they are at the mercy of the primary payload’s schedule and desired orbit. Rocket Lab’s Electron is the only private, small launch vehicle currently flying to orbit and offering the dedicated flights tailored to these small payloads.
Ten CubeSats manifested on the mission are receiving their access to space through a NASA initiative called the Cubesat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and are part of the 19th Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, or ELaNa-19. The program recognizes that cubesats are playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstration, scientific research and educational investigations. These miniature satellites provide a low-cost platform for research and commercial applications, including planetary space exploration; Earth Observation (EO); Earth and space science; and developing precursor science instruments like laser communications, satellite-to-satellite communications and autonomous movement capabilities.
The recent payload integration process, which took place at Rocket Lab USA’s facility in Huntington Beach, California, involves conducting final spacecraft checks and preparations before the smallsats are loaded into dispensers that protect the payloads during launch, then deploy them from the Electron vehicle once in LEO. The integrated payloads will be shipped to New Zealand for mating onto the Electron launch vehicle in coming weeks, before a launch from Rocket Lab’s private orbital launch facility, Launch Complex 1.
Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck said that the VCLS contract by NASA’s Launch Services Program is forward-thinking and a direct response to the small satellite industry’s changing needs for rapid and repeatable access to orbit. The oversight NASA has provided as part of this contract has been tremendously valuable for Rocket Lab. Venture Class launches are about freeing smallsat payloads from the barriers they currently face in trying to access space on larger launch platforms as secondary payloads and NASA enabling this change and embracing private small launch vehicles, such as Electron, is exciting.