PARIS — Rocket Lab successfully launched a Japanese radar imaging satellite Sept. 15 as the company prepares for another attempt to recover and reuse a booster.
An Electron rocket blasted off from Pad B at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 4:38 p.m. Eastern Time. The rocket’s launch stage deployed its payload, Japanese company Synspective’s StriX-1 satellite, into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 563 kilometers about an hour later.
The satellite is the third Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging satellite launched for Synspective, all on Electron rockets. StriX-1 is the first “pre-commercial” satellite after two demonstration satellites as the company prepares to build a constellation of up to 30 SAR satellites by 2026. StriX-1 showcases improvements to its batteries and its communication system to allow it to collect more images.
The launch was the seventh Electron mission of the year and the 30th overall for the company. StriX-1 was the 150th satellite placed in orbit above these Electron missions.
Rocket Lab did not attempt to recover the Electron first stage. The latest attempt to do so was during a launch in May, when a helicopter briefly grabbed the scene as it descended under a parachute, but had to let it go due to unforeseen loads on the helicopter. . The booster was instead retrieved from the ocean after splashing down. During the StriX-1 launch webcast, the company said it would make another in-flight recovery attempt later this year.
Rocket Lab continued its work to prepare the reuse of boosters. The company announced on September 1 that it had tested a Rutherford engine from the booster salvaged from the May launch, demonstrating that it worked with only “minimal” refurbishment after its first flight.
“If we can achieve this high level of performance from engine components salvaged from the ocean, then I am optimistic and incredibly excited about what we can do when we bring dry engines back under a helicopter next time,” said Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, said in a statement.
Others in the small launcher industry remain more skeptical of the benefits of reusing these rockets. “Reuse, in my mind, always comes across as something extremely whimsical and appealing, and there’s also obviously the appeal of something more environmentally friendly,” said Giulio Ranzo, chief executive of Avio, maker of the Vega, during a panel at World Satellite Business Week on September 13.
He argued that reuse made sense primarily for larger launchers with a high steal rate. “The smaller the launcher and the lower the flight rate, the more useless it becomes,” he said. “I don’t see, technically, how on a 200-kilogram performance launch vehicle reuse would be very practical, especially if the flight rate tends to be something like four or five launches per year.”
“Reuse is something that’s going to be looked at,” said Jason Mello, president of Firefly Space Transport Services, a subsidiary of Firefly Aerospace. This includes both the company’s Alpha vehicle, about to make its second flight, as well as the future medium launch vehicle it will develop with Northrop Grumman.
“We need to look at the business case and see what makes sense, and what is the customer demand we need,” he said.
Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said the company had looked into the possibility of reusing its LauncherOne rocket. “There are puts and takes there,” he said. “There are constraints and logistical complexities associated with reuse. However, if you pick up the hardware and use it, there’s definitely an upside to that.
He said the company is considering manufacturing improvements to reduce launch costs rather than relying on reusing components. “The trade-off is unclear as to whether reuse makes much sense.”
One part of the overall LauncherOne system, however, is reusable: the Boeing 747 aircraft used as an aerial launch platform for the rocket. “She’s flown over 8,500 times,” Hart said of the company’s plane. “So from a reuse perspective, I think she’s in the lead.”