I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical | Electron

 Launch Window
(Subject to change)

August 31, 2020 – 03:05 UTC  | 15:05 Local

Mission Name
I Can’t Believe Its Not Optical, Capella Space’s first operational launch
Launch Provider
(What rocket company is launching it?)
Rocket Lab
(Who’s paying for this?)
Capella Space
Electron (Block 2)
Launch Location
Launch Complex-1A, Mahia Peninsula, NZ
Payload mass
100 kg (220 lbs)
Where are the satellites going?

45° inclination 525 km orbit

Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?
No, there will be no further recovery efforts pending an Electron block upgrade on flight 17.
Where will the first stage land?
The first stage will fall into into the Pacific Ocean
Will they be attempting to recover the fairings?
No, this is not a planned capability of Electron
How’s the weather looking?
The weather is currently 90% go for launch
This will be the:
  • 1st launch of Capella Space’s Whitney constellation
  • 14th launch of Electron
  • 4th flight of Electron Block 2
  • 4th Mission for Rocket Lab in 2020
Where to watch
Rocket Lab stream

Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, will be streaming at T-30 minutes; come ask questions and join the conversation live!


What’s All This Mean?

In light of the previous launch’s failure to reach orbit, Rocket Lab is once more go for launch. “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical,” launching from Mahia, New Zealand, will fly Capella Space’s first operational earth-observation satellite into orbit.



Following a nominal lift-off from the company’s serene LC-1A at 21:19 UTC, all seemed well. However, a few minutes into the second-stage burn of “Pics or it Didn’t Happen,” video feed was ironically lost. This was accompanied by a shot of mission control, revealing concerned-looking Kiwis.

Throughout the drama, the stream overlay continued to provide “good telemetry” – despite the data being good, what it alluded to was not. The velocity reading had lost all acceleration, and shortly thereafter, the speed picked up as the rocket began falling.

The anomaly’s proximity to Electron’s battery hot-swap – a maneuver in which discharged batteries are jettisoned to save weight – lead most to speculate that something electrically related caused the engine to shut down.

After a month-long investigation, Rocket Lab affirmed speculation in a statement to its website on July 31st.

However, the incident was not related to the battery hot-swap. Instead, Rocket Lab cited an intermittent electrical connection caused by the intense vibrations of launch. The connection, which evaded testing, caused increased resistance and heating. This created a runaway effect in which the surrounding potting compound was liquified, severing the electrical supply to the fuel pumps and starving the engine.

The same-month approval to return-to-flight is a testament to Rocket Lab’s reputation as a provider of “frequent and reliable access to space.”


Not the first return-to-flight

Rocket Lab has rebounded from a failure before. On Electron’s maiden flight – “It’s a Test” – in May 2017, the rocket briefly lost contact with the ground, resulting in a manual termination. The flight termination system, now autonomous, works by cutting off thrust to the vehicle – ensuring that it remains in a safe flight corridor.

After poring through 25,000 channels of data, the company concluded that the fault was not in the rocket its self, attributing it to misconfigured ground equipment. The equipment in question, operated by an unnamed third-party, caused ‘extensive corruption of received position data.’

Despite the failure to reach orbit, the test flight was regarded as a success by the company. Rocket Lab maintained that “Electron was following its nominal trajectory and was on course to reach orbit.” The vehicle passed almost all critical milestones and had the ground failure not occurred, it would have likely gone off without a hitch.

As summarized in a statement by Rocket Lab Founder and CEO, Peter Beck: “While it was disappointing to see the flight terminated in essence due to an incorrect tick box, we can say we tested nearly everything, including the flight termination system.”


Payload Capacity Increase

Rocket Lab announced Aug 4th a major increase to their rocket’s payload capacity. Electron previously boasted a payload capacity of 225 kg to Low Earth orbit, but the recent buff has increased this to 300 kg.

Counterintuitively, little has changed to achieve the 33% increase. Thanks to the company’s forward thinking-ness, the upgrade was made possible by little more than new batteries.

Uniquely, in place of a gas-generator, the Rutherford uses DC electric motors to drive its propellant pumps. The design decision allows the company to bet on advancements in battery technology to increase performance down the road.

A Turbopump – portmanteau of turbine and pump – works by spinning a turbine in the exhaust of a gas-generator to drive propellant pumps.

Rocket Lab’s adoption of the electric-pump-fed cycle not only paves the way for future upgradeability but maximizes the efficiency of the engine. As opposed to a conventional engine, in which, a portion of propellant is burnt to spin turbopumps, the Rutherford uses all the fuel and oxidizer for thrust.


Booster recovery update

Although Rocket Lab is pursuing booster recovery, there will be no further testing pending a block upgrade to their Electron rocket. The new block, slated to debut on flight 17, will include the necessary hardware to return the core in one piece.

Given the current global situation, you’d be forgiven for dismissing the upgrade as a distant milestone. However, as a result of a COVID-19 launch freeze, the company has amassed somewhat of a stockpile of boosters. With the upgraded Electron 17 having long-gone down the production line, Rocket Lab is raring to go.

The new Block 3 Electron, pictured on NZ factory floor, packs 15kg of parachutes and sports a white interstage. Image: Rocket Lab

Unlike flights 11 and 12, the booster will not attempt a passive reentry. As explained in a socially distant interview for Everyday Astronaut, Beck stated: “the extra data is not valuable enough to warrant… all the logistics that go along with tracking a stage down.”

If you are unfamiliar with how Rocket Lab plans to land boosters, we’ve got you covered.

Payload Overview

Capella Space, a company providing Earth data on demand, will be launching their next satellite on the return to flight mission of Electron. The 100 kg (220 lbs) satellite dubbed “Sequoia” will be apart of the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) constellation. To maximize the area that the satellite can cover, it will be placed in a 45 degree inclination orbit to get the most amount of coverage over the areas of Middle East, Korea, Japan, Europe, South East Asia, Africa, and the U.S.

Sequoia will aid in disaster relief, mapping areas for agriculture and infrastructure advancement, as well as security. It has the unique capability to detect sub 0.5 meter changes in the Earth’s surface.

Key Features:

  • Has the ability to deliver high-contrast, low noise, sub 0.5 meter imagery to the public
  • 3.5 meter mesh reflector and and a 400W solar array
  • Thermal systems can aid tin taking longer images up to 4000 km long 
  • Large reaction wheels allow fast satellite movement for a larger range of imaging capabilities 
  • A very high downlink rate of 1.2 Gbps to allow faster image download
  • Real-time tasking abilities through Inmarsat
Artists render of the “Sequoia” satellite. (Credit: Capella Space)
1 comment
  1. Loving your page! However in the payload overview image, it states that:

    > Like all Capella satellites, Sequoia will be able to see through clouds and in the dark and detect sub-0.5 meter changes on Earth’s surface.

    That can be read as if Capella had other working satellites, and they had demonstrated this capability already. However, I’m under the impression that if the payload succeeds, this would be Capella’s first operational Satellite. All their SAR sample images have so far been taken from planes: https://www.c4isrnet.com/battlefield-tech/space/2020/08/31/capella-spaces-first-sar-satellite-finally-launched-into-orbit/

    Did I misunderstood the quote?

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