Featured image credit: Rocket Lab
Lift Off Time
|July 18, 2023 – 01:27 UTC | 13:27 NZST|
|Baby Come Back, a rideshare mission|
|NASA, Space Flight Laboratory (SFL), Spire Global|
|Launch Complex-1B, Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand|
|Approximately 86 kg|
Where are the satellites going?
|1,000 km Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) with an inclination of 99.45°|
Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?
Where will the first stage land?
|It will softly splash down for a marine recovery|
Will they be attempting to recover the fairings?
Are these fairings new?
This will be the:
|– 6th Rocket Lab launch of 2023|
– 4th launch from Launch Complex-1B
– 39th Electron launch
– 105th orbital launch attempt of 2023
Where to watch
|Official livestream |
Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, will be streaming the launch; come ask questions and join the conversation live!
What Does All This Mean?
Rocket Lab is preparing for its rideshare Baby Come Back mission launching from Launch Complex-1B, Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand. This mission will deploy seven satellites to space for multiple customers (NASA, Space Flight Laboratory, and Spire Global) and will mark the sixth launch for the company in 2023. Moreover, the Baby Come Back mission will see a marine recovery of the first stage after it returns to Earth under a parachute.
The Baby Come Back Mission
On the Baby Come Back mission, Electron will carry seven satellites: four CubeSats for NASA’s Starling program, a demonstration satellite for Space Flight Laboratory, and two satellites for Spire Global. All but one of the satellites will be enclosed in Rocket Lab’s carbon composite Maxwell dispensers.
NASA’s Starling Program
The Baby Come Back mission will launch NASA’s Starling mission that will test new technologies for cooperative groups of spacecraft (also referred as clusters or swarms). Spacecraft clusters consist of multiple satellites that autonomously coordinate their activities without using resources from the ground. On this mission, a cluster will consist of four 6U CubeSats (each about the size of two stacked cereal boxes) that feature two deployable fixed solar arrays and have a lifespan of six months.
NASA’s Starling mission is managed by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program which is based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. This is not the first time Rocket Lab will provide launch services for NASA. Among the previous missions are the ELaNa-19 educational CubeSat program, the CAPSTONE mission to the Moon, and two dedicated Electron launches for the TROPICS mission.
Starling Technology Demonstrations
The swarm will fly in a Sun-synchronous orbit about 570 km (355 miles) above the Earth and about 60 km (40 miles) apart from each other. The cluster will fly in two formations: first, the satellites will begin in line; then, they will move into a set of stable relative orbits known as passive safety ellipses.
In these two formations, the cluster will demonstrate four technologies:
- Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard (ROMEO): swarm maneuver planning and execution will be first operated by the cluster flight control software in shadow mode, while the satellites are controlled from the ground. Following successful validation, the spacecraft will autonomously carry out maneuvers without ground intervention.
- Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET): communications networking among the CubeSats will be maintained via two-way S-band crosslink radios/antennas. In the event of a communications node failure with one of the satellites, the communications route automatically reconfigures to ensure full communication capabilities for the remaining operational swarm.
- Starling Formation-Flying Optical Experiment (StarFOX): relative navigation of the spacecraft is achieved using commercial star trackers that evaluate satellites orientation relative to the stars. An advanced navigation algorithm uses these data to visually detect and track the other three CubeSats within the cluster. The main objective is to determine for each spacecraft not only its own location but also the positions of the other three satellites.
- Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy (DSA): the swarm will be autonomously monitoring Earth’s ionosphere and measuring the density of atmospheric regions using dual-band GPS receivers. The onboard DSA software will orchestrate the selection of the best GPS signals from the cluster in real time to precisely capture regions with different ionospheric densities.
In summary, NASA’s Starling mission will evaluate whether the technologies described above work as expected. An ultimate goal of this program would be to use satellite swarms for exploration missions by strategically positioning multiple spacecraft to operate as a single instrument. As an example, this could support the identification of resources for long-term human presence on the Moon.
Space Flight Laboratory’s LEO 3 Demonstration Satellite
The LEO 3 is a 30x30x45 cm satellite designed and manufactured by Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) based in Toronto, Canada. The company has been awarded a contract to develop this demonstration satellite for Telesat, one of the world’s largest and most innovative satellite operators. SFL in its turn selected Rocket Lab to launch the LEO 3 which will ensure a seamless transition for customer and ecosystem vendor testing campaigns following the decommissioning of Telesat’s Phase 1 LEO satellite.
The LEO 3 satellite has a mass of 30 kg and is based on SFL’s scalable and versatile DEFIANT microsatellite platform (some specifications are presented in the table below).
|Volume||36 x36 x45 cm|
|Payload Mass||Up to 30 kg|
|Payload Volume||Up to 26 dm3|
|Payload Power||Up to 76 Wh/orbit |
215 W peak
|Downlink||Up to 120 Mbps|
|Navigation||GPS, 5-10 m|
|Launch Interface||Separation system|
Once successfully launched and positioned, the LEO 3 will operate under an established ITU network filing for Telesat Lightspeed, which represents the company’s enterprise-class LEO constellation and supports aeronautical, maritime, enterprise, telecom, and government networks.
Spire Global Satellites
The Baby Come Back mission will deploy two 3U Lemur-2 satellites for Spire Global, a data and analytics company that specializes in tracking maritime, aviation, and weather patterns. The satellites will carry Global Navigation Satellite System Radio Occultation (GNSS-RO) payloads to restore the company’s fully deployed constellation of over 100 versatile satellites.
GNSS-RO is a remote sensing technique that uses GNSS measurements, such as those obtained from GPS satellites in LEO. This method profiles the Earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere with high vertical resolution and global coverage. Therefore, Spire’s GNSS-RO payloads will provide data that will offer comprehensive global weather intelligence. This, in turn, can help in developing weather models to enhance the precision and reliability of forecasts.
Rocket Lab’s Recovery Program
The company revealed its plans for the recovery program in 2019. The global aim of this program is to safely recover and re-fly Electron’s first stage. This would allow the company to increase launch cadence even further by reducing production time spent on building new first stages from scratch.
Rocket Lab’s initial recovery program was divided into two phases. The first one consisted of three ocean splashdown recovery missions (16th, 20th, and 22nd missions), where a full Electron first stage was recovered from the water and shipped back to the production complex for closer inspection. On these flights, Rocket Lab gathered the necessary data needed for understanding the recovery process and introducing updates to the vehicle’s design. For example, the Love At First Insight mission featured an advanced parachute, improvements to the heat shield, and added thermal protection system. Check out their demo video that illustrates all steps of this recovery program!
The Love At First Insight mission concluded the first phase of the recovery program and for the first time included a helicopter in the recovery process by observing Electron’s descent. Even before that, Rocket Lab performed many successful helicopter captures with replica stages.
The There and Back Again mission marked the first attempt of a mid-air helicopter capture of the Electron launch vehicle as it returned to Earth from space. The mid-air capture was successful; however, shortly after the catch, the pilot detected different load characteristics than experienced in previous recovery tests. This led to a release for a marine recovery.
The Catch Me If You Can mission did not achieve the mid-air catch due to a telemetry loss during Stage 1 reentry.
Starting from the mission The Beat Goes On, the company decided to focus solely on marine recovery operations. On this mission, the team returned the first stage to its manufacturing facilities after returning to Earth under a parachute.
The Baby Come Back mission will test a few upgrades on Electron, including new waterproofing features (improved sealing solutions for the interstage, powerpack, and some internal components on the Rutherford engines) to protect its key components from the environment of an ocean splashdown, as well as making the engines fully resilient. Moreover, the Electron on this mission will have a lighter version of the parachute optimized for splashdown recovery. Lastly, for the first time, the company will use a two-point lifting method to move the recovered stage onto the ship.
|– 06:00:00||Road to the launch site is closed|
|– 04:00:00||Electron is raised vertical, fueling begins|
|– 02:30:00||Launch pad is cleared|
|– 02:00:00||LOx load begins|
|– 02:00:00||Safety zones are activated for designated marine space|
|– 00:30:00||Safety zones are activated for designated airspace|
|– 00:18:00||GO/NO GO poll|
|– 00:02:00||Launch auto sequence begins|
|Events (Recovery Events Are In Orange)|
|+00:02:24||Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) on Electron’s first stage|
|+00:02:27||Stage 1 separates from Stage 2|
|+00:02:31||Electron’s Stage 2 Rutherford engine ignites|
|+00:04:07||Stage 1 apogee|
|+00:07:23||Stage 1 drogue parachute deployment|
|+00:07:38||Stage 1 is subsonic|
|+00:08:13||Stage 1 main parachute deployment|
|+00:08:59||Second Engine Cut Off (SECO) on Stage 2|
|+00:09:09||Stage 2 separation from Kick Stage|
|+00:53:52||Kick Stage Curie engine ignition|
|Splashdown predicted to occur between|
T+919s to T+1063s
|+00:46:27||Kick Stage Curie engine ignition (1)|
|+00:48:39||Curie engine Cut Off (1)|
|+00:49:14||NASA Starling 1 Deploys|
|+00:49:44||NASA Starling 2 Deploys|
|+00:50:14||NASA Starling 3 Deploys|
|+00:50:44||NASA Starling 4 Deploys|
|+00:51:14||Spire 1 Deploys|
|+00:51:44||Spire 2 Deploys|
|+00:54:49||Kick Stage Curie engine ignition (2)|
|+00:56:19||Curie engine Cut Off (2)|
|+01:44:13||Kick Stage Curie engine ignition (3)|
|+01:45:38||Curie engine Cut Off (3)|
|~+01:46:13||SFL LEO 3 Deployed|
What Is Electron?
Rocket Lab’s Electron is a small-lift launch vehicle designed and developed specifically to place small satellites (CubeSats, nano-, micro-, and minisatellites) into LEO and Sun-synchronous orbits (SSO). Electron consists of two stages with optional third stages.
Electron is about 18.5 meters (60.7 feet) in height and only 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) in diameter. It is not only small in size, but also lightweight. The vehicle structures are made of advanced carbon fiber composites, which yield an enhanced performance of the rocket. Electron’s payload lift capacity to LEO is 300 kg (~660 lbs).
The maiden flight It’s A Test was launched on May 25, 2017, from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-1 (LC-1) in New Zealand. On this mission, a failure in the ground communication system occurred, which resulted in the loss of telemetry. Even though the company had to manually terminate the flight, there was no larger issue with the vehicle itself. Since then, Electron has flown a total of 38 times (35 of them were fully successful) and delivered 163 satellites into orbit.
First And Second Stage
|First Stage||Second Stage|
|Engine||9 Rutherford engines||1 vacuum optimized Rutherford engine|
|Thrust Per Engine||24 kN (5,600 Ibf)||25.8 kN (5,800 Ibf)|
|Specific Impulse (ISP)||311 s||343 s|
Electron’s first stage is composed of linerless common bulkhead tanks for propellant and an interstage, and powered by nine sea-level Rutherford engines. The second stage also consists of tanks for propellant (~2,000 kg of propellant) and is powered by a single vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine. The main difference between these two variations of the Rutherford engine is that the latter has an expanded nozzle that results in improved performance in near-vacuum conditions.
For the Love At First Insight mission, the company introduced an update to the second stage by stretching it by 0.5 m. Moreover, they flew an Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) for the first time.
Rutherford engines are the main propulsion source for Electron and were designed in-house, specifically for this vehicle. They are running on rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOx). There are at least two things about the Rutherford engine that make it stand out.
Firstly, all primary components of Rutherford engines are 3D printed. Main propellant valves, injector pumps, and an engine chamber are all produced by electron beam melting (EBM), which is one of the variations of 3D printing. This manufacturing method is cost-effective and time-efficient, as it allows to fabricate a full engine in only 24 hours.
Rutherford is the first RP-1/LOx engine that uses electric motors and high-performance lithium polymer batteries to power its propellant pumps. These pumps are crucial components of the engine as they feed the propellants into the combustion chamber, where they ignite and produce thrust. However, the process of transporting liquid fuel and oxidizer into the chamber is not trivial. In a typical gas generator cycle engine, it requires additional fuel and complex turbomachinery just to drive those pumps. Rocket Lab decided to use battery technology instead, which allowed for eliminating a lot of extra hardware without compromising performance.
Different Third Stages
Electron has optional third stages, also known as the Kick Stage, Photon, and deep-space version of Photon. The Kick Stage is powered by a single Curie engine that can produce 120 N of thrust. Like Rutherford, it was designed in-house and fabricated by 3D printing. Apart from the engine, the Kick Stage consists of carbon composite tanks for propellant storage and six reaction control thrusters.
In its standard configuration, the Kick Stage serves as in-space propulsion to deploy Rocket Lab’s customers’ payloads to their designated orbits. It has the re-light capability, meaning the engine can re-ignite several times to send multiple payloads into different individual orbits. For example, on Electron’s 19th mission, They Go Up So Fast, launched in 2021. The Curie engine was ignited to circularize the orbit before deploying a payload to 550 km. Curie then re-lighted to lower the altitude to 450 km, and the remaining payloads were successfully deployed.
Photon And Deep-space Photon
Rocket Lab offers an advanced configuration of the Kick Stage, its Photon satellite bus. Photon can accommodate various payloads and function as a separate operational spacecraft supporting long-term missions. Among the features that it can provide to satellites are power, avionics, propulsion, and communications.
But there is more to it. Photon also comes as a deep-space version that will carry interplanetary missions. It is powered by a HyperCurie engine, an evolution of the Curie engine. The HyperCurie engine is electric pump-fed, so it can use solar cells to charge up the batteries in between burns. It has an extended nozzle to be more efficient than the standard Curie and runs on some “green hypergolic fuel” that Rocket Lab has not yet disclosed.