Rocket Lab launches for the first time from Wallops, Virginia.

Rocket Lab launches for the first time from Wallops, Virginia.

Rocket Lab, one of the most successful space startups since SpaceX, launched its Electron rocket for the first time Tuesday evening from NASA’s Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.

The Electron rocket lifted off from a refurbished launch pad around 6 p.m. and could be seen from the DC metro area. The California-based company previously launched rockets from its facilities in New Zealand, but hopes to fly more frequently from the United States.

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The Wallops facility is near Chincoteague and has been around for decades. In addition to Rocket Lab, it houses Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket, which performs cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station.

A few years ago, Rocket Lab moved in, adding a commercial company to what Virginia hopes will become a thriving list of space companies operating at the site. The company considered other locations in the United States, such as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but ultimately chose Wallops in part because of its ability to expand operations there.

“KSC is an amazing lineup, but I think everyone has to agree it’s pretty busy,” Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said in a call with reporters last year. last. “While we can do almost the same trajectories from Virginia here. The lineup isn’t as busy and there’s plenty of room to grow.”

With its small size, just under 60 feet tall, Electron is designed to carry small satellites on short notice. This is a capability of particular interest to the Pentagon and the US intelligence community. This is another reason why Rocket Lab chose Wallops; it’s only a little over a three-hour drive from Washington.

Tuesday’s launch was delayed from December. The rocket carried three satellites made by HawkEye 360, a Herndon, Va.-based company that operates satellites capable of detecting radio frequencies. Just over an hour after launch, the company said the satellites had been successfully deployed.

In addition to launching Electron, the company plans to fly its much larger Neutron rocket from Wallops. This rocket is meant to be reusable – after launching into space, it would turn around and return to its launch pad. Beck said the company would attempt to land Neutron on its first flight, now scheduled for 2024.

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