Rocket Lab’s American debut will be delayed a bit. The company, which has its headquarters in Los Angeles, was to launch three satellites for radio-frequency analysis customer HawkEye 360. They will orbit from Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. This would have been the first Rocket Lab vehicle to take off from U.S. soil.
However, the company announced yesterday that today’s launch window was closed due to strong winds at the upper levels. This made the launch of the Rocket Lab vehicle impossible.
Not only marking the first time Electron takes off from U.S. soil but also the first time a rocket flies with novel flight safety software that Rocket Lab and NASA say is a game-changer for American launch plans.
That software, an autonomous flight termination system, will reduce range costs and prime Rocket Lab to serve the launch needs of the U.S. defense agencies.
In a press conference last Wednesday, CEO Peter Beck stated that “This flight just doesn’t symbolize another launch pad for Rocket Lab” “It’s a standing up of a new capability for the nation.”
This capability is known as the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU), a critical component of the Pegasus Software. Rocket Lab jointly developed it with the space agency. By 2025, all Department of Defense launches will require autonomous flight termination capabilities.
According to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility director David Pierce, it took several years and many delays to get NAFTU certification.
According to Pierce, NASA found “a number of errors in the software code” in 2020. However, the unit still had to undergo long independent testing and certification. Due to these delays, Rocket Lab could not launch from the new launch facility, LC-2.
Pierce stated, “I can’t stress enough how significant this moment is in time for launch ranges and the launch industry.”
Pierce estimated that the unit could lower launch range costs by up to 30% and increase launch cadence for providers. The rocket will return to the pad in January with three HawkEye 360 Satellites. Once in orbit, they will fly in formation to collect radio-frequency data.
HawkEye then downlinks and analyses the data for customers. This launch is the first in three Rocket Lab rocket launches. It will increase the number of HawkEye satellites currently orbiting to 18.
Beck stated that Rocket Lab wouldn’t attempt to recover boosters for this mission. Rocket Lab has developed a method to capture a booster returning from Earth using parachutes and a helicopter and then snatch the parachute in midair. Beck stated that there is no reason the company would not attempt a booster recovery at Virginia’s launch site.
However, he said, We need to get it right, and using our own range in New Zealand to do that is by far the most efficient way to do that.”
Rocket Lab doesn’t use Virginia only as a launch location. Rocket Lab is investing significant capital in developing the heavy-lift Neutron rocket. This includes a launch site, manufacturing, and refurbishing facilities. Wallops’ investment differs from other launch companies like SpaceX, Relativity, and Blue Origin, which all have a base at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.