|July 29, 2021 – 06:00-08:00 UTC | 18:00-20:00 NZT|
|It’s a Little Chile Up Here|
|United States Space Force (USSF)|
|Launch Complex-1A, Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand|
|Classified, max payload to 600 km LEO is ~ 260 kg|
Where is the satellite going?
|600 km circular low-Earth orbit (LEO) at a 37° inclination|
Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?
|No, not on this mission|
Where will the first stage land?
|It will crash into the Pacific Ocean|
Will they be attempting to recover the fairings?
|No, this is not a capability of Electron|
Are these fairings new?
How’s the weather looking?
|90% go with clear skies|
This will be the:
|– 4th launch of Electron in 2021|
– 21st Electron launch ever
– 71st orbital launch attempt of 2021
Where to watch
What’s all this mean?
Rocket Lab will be attempting its 21st launch of its Electron rocket on their “It’s a Little Chile Up Here” mission for the United States Department of Defense (US DoD). This flight follows the previous mission “Running Out of Toes“, which unfortunately experienced a failure on the second stage that resulted in the loss of the mission. Electron will deploy a single payload into a low-Earth orbit (LEO) and will not be recovered.
What’s on “It’s a Little Chile Up Here”?
Due to the classified nature of the Department of Defense, no technical details are known about the payload called Monolith, on this mission. The DoD secured this launch through the Space Test Program (STP) and the Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP). This is operated from the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, United States, which is the headquarters for the Space Test Program.
What does “It’s a Little Chile Up Here” mean?
The location of the STP in New Mexico provides meaning to the name, which points toward the green chile, found in New Mexico. The popularization of the plant can be credited to New Mexico State University, which worked to decrease the heat of the plant to make it a more pleasurable food, as well as spice. New Mexico’s green chiles are defined by their shape and not where they are grown. This means that they are widely grown, but due to their skinny and long nature, are referred to as such.
“It’s a Little Chile Up Here” mission timeline
|– 04:00:00||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|
|– 00:00:02||Rutherford engines ignite|
|+00:02:34||Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) on Electron’s first stage|
|+00:02:37||Stage 1 separates from Stage 2|
|+00:02:41||Electron’s Stage 2 Rutherford engine ignites|
|+00:08:41||Electron reaches orbit|
|+00:08:46||Stage 2 engine cut off|
|+00:08:50||Stage 2 separation from Kick Stage|
|+00:49:20||Kick Stage Curie engine ignition|
|+00:51:08||Curie engine cut off|
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 low Earth orbits (LEO) and Sun-synchronous orbits (SSO). Electron consists of two stages with optional third stages.
Electron is about 18 meters (59 feet) in height and only 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) in diameter. It is not only small in size, but also light-weighted. The vehicle structures are made of advanced carbon fiber composites, which yields 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 20 times (17 of them were fully successful) and delivered 104 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 9 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.
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 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.
Moreover, 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 eliminating a lot of extra hardware without compromising the performance.
Different Third Stages
In addition, 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 is fabricated by 3D printing. Apart from the engine, the Kick Stage consists of carbon composite tanks for propellant storage and 6 reaction control thrusters.
Basically, the Kick Stage in its standard configuration serves as in-space propulsion to deploy Rocket Lab’s customers’ payloads to their designated orbits. It has re-light capability, which means that the engine can re-ignite several times to send multiple payloads into different individual orbits. A recent example includes Electron 19th mission, They Go Up So Fast, launched in March earlier this year. 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
Moreover, 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. In addition, 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. NASA already plans to use the deep-space version of Photon for its robotic Moon mission CAPSTONE. On this mission, the Photon spacecraft will deliver NASA’s 25 kg CubeSat into a unique lunar orbit, formally known as a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO). You can read more about CAPSTONE here.