A Rocket Lab Electron booster lifted off from the east coast of Virginia on Tuesday, propelling three radio-mapping satellites into orbit in the company’s first launch from US soil. It was the first commercial rocket to use NASA-developed autonomous self-destruct software designed to reduce costs while ensuring public safety.
“This flight just doesn’t symbolize another launching pad for Rocket Lab,” said company founder Peter Beck. “This is a new capability for the nation. This is a new AFTS (automated flight termination) system coming online for industry. And this is a new rocket for Virginia and for the facility. flight of Wallops.”
A month late due to weather and the holiday schedule, the 60-foot-tall Electron took off with a burst of fiery exhaust at 6:00 p.m. EST, and quickly sped away from the Mid-Atlantic Regional. Spaceport (MARS), on NASA’s Wallops Island. , Virginia, Flight Facility.
All rockets launched from the United States must be equipped with self-destruct systems capable of rapidly destroying an off-road booster before debris reaches a populated area. In previous US launches, military personnel, using tracking radars and other systems, stood ready to transmit self-destruct signals if necessary.
But SpaceX now uses a company-developed automatic self-destruct system designed specifically for its Falcon 9 rockets that requires far fewer people to operate. The Electron is the first to use NASA software, which does much the same thing, but can be configured for any rocket.
“Autonomous flight termination technology reduces the need for certain ground assets and personnel, ultimately resulting in cost savings,” said David Pierce, Wallops Flight Facility Manager.
“To date, 18 companies have requested the software through NASA’s technology transfer process,” Pierce added. “Rocket Lab was among the very first applicants for software to enable launch from Wallops. This was a significant milestone.”
After propelling the Electron out of 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 this point, a “kick” third stage carrying three HawkEye 360 radio mapping satellites separated to fly on its own. After a scheduled ignition of the starter stage engine about an hour after liftoff, the satellites were to be launched into a 341-mile high orbit.
HawkEye 360 satellites are launched in groups of three. They are designed to scan the skies to search and map radio transmissions from the ground, air and space, data useful to military, law enforcement and other civilian and commercial users.
Prior to Tuesday’s flight, Rocket Lab had launched 152 small satellites in 29 successful launches from two Electron pads in. The company plans to regularly launch electrons from Wallops and is developing a larger, fully reusable rocket called Neutron that will be integrated and launched from Virginia.
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