Love At First Insight | Electron

Lift off time
November 18, 2021 – 01:38:13 UTC | 14:38:13 NZT
Mission Name
Love At First Insight, two Earth observation microsatellites for BlackSky’s constellation
Launch Provider
(What rocket company launched it?)
Rocket Lab
Customer
(Who paid for this?)
Spaceflight Inc. for BlackSky
Rocket
Electron
Launch Location
Launch Complex-1A, Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand
Payload mass
120 kg (~260 Ib)
Where did the satellites go?
430 km circular low Earth orbit (LEO) at a 42° inclination
Did they attempt to recover the first stage?
Yes, it was their third attempt!
Where did the first stage land?
It softly landed in the Pacific Ocean, ~370 km offshore
Did they attempt to recover the fairings?
No
Were these fairings new?
Yes
This was the:
– 1st time that a helicopter tracked Electron’s descent
3rd planned ocean splashdown recovery mission
– 5th Rocket Lab launch of 2021

– 22nd Electron launch
– 113th orbital launch attempt of 2021 (106th successful)
Where to re-watch
Official replay

Everyday Astronaut replay

How Did It Go?

Rocket Lab successfully launched the Love At First Insight mission, which lifted off from Launch Complex-1A, Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand. On the Love At First Insight mission, Electron deployed two Earth-observation microsatellites for BlackSky’s constellation into a 430 km low Earth orbit (LEO) at a 42° inclination. Moreover, this mission marked the third planned ocean splashdown recovery attempt of the company and was the first time a helicopter has been involved in the recovery process by observing Electron’s descent. Recovery-wise, the main objective of this mission was to see if it is possible to safely position a helicopter in the catching range. This objective was successfully achieved.

Love At First Insight's mission patch, the 22nd mission for Electron
Love At First Insight‘s mission patch. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Love At First Insight was the first of two back-to-back missions dedicated for BlackSky. These two launches are scheduled through November and December and will mark the fastest turnaround between launches for Rocket Lab to date.

Love At First Insight Mission

BlackSky

BlackSky is a Seattle-based leading provider of real-time geospatial intelligence that uses its Gen-2 smallsats to detect objects of interest. These smallsats are designed and produced by its partner, LeoStella. BlackSky’s constellation gathers observations from space, air, and various terrestrial sensors and can image a location multiple times a day.

Once in orbit, BlackSky’s two Gen-2 satellites capture images of Earth with sub-meter resolution. The company uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to handle this universe of data in the most efficient way. Using AI/ML algorithms, BlackSky’s analytics platform (Spectra AI) can track the world’s news for emerging events and task microsatellites to image them, which provides time-sensitive and critical information to early responders.

Payload

This section is based on the mission Running Out of Toes.

Love At First Insight was a dedicated mission to lift two 60 kg microsatellites for BlackSky’s global constellation. Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. was responsible for arranging the launch, as well as for the mission management and integration services for BlackSky.

This was not the first time that Rocket Lab provided launch services for BlackSky. Three of their Earth-observation satellites had already been successfully deployed by Electron across 2019 and earlier this year on the rideshare mission They Go Up So Fast. Love At First Insight followed the previous mission Running Out of Toes, which unfortunately experienced a failure on the second stage that resulted in the loss of the payload. 

BlackSky's two microsatellites on Electron's Kick Stage, Running Out of Toes Mission
BlackSky’s two microsatellites on Electron’s Kick Stage (Credit: Rocket Lab via Twitter)

For this mission, Rocket Lab used an interesting Russian doll-like payload’s configuration in the fairing. BlackSky’s two microsatellites were double stacked on top of each other using another payload adapter for deployment from Electron’s Kick Stage.

BlackSky’s Earth-observation satellites in the Rocket Lab’s cleanroom. (Credit: Rocket Lab via Twitter)

In addition, Electron’s fairing saw some updates to optimize space for the payload. In particular, the company added length to it and modified the nose.

Electron’s fairing for Love At First Insight Mission (Credit: Rocket Lab via Twitter)

Rocket Lab’s Recovery Program

The company has 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 to build new first stages from scratch. 

Rocket Lab’s recovery program is divided into two phases. The first one consists of three ocean splashdown recovery missions, where a full Electron first stage is recovered from the water and shipped back to the production complex for closer inspection. On these flights, Rocket Lab will gather the necessary data needed for understanding the recovery process and introducing updates to the vehicle’s design. Then, the company intends to move into the second phase of the recovery program – mid-air recovery with a helicopter. The first mid-air recovery mission is now planned for the first half of 2022. Once the recovery test program is completed, Peter Beck expects that “around 50% of Electron flights will be reusable versus expendable.”

Upgraded hardware

The previous Running Out of Toes mission has already used some of the booster’s components that had flown on the first recovery launch Return to Sender. More particularly, its propellant pressurization system traveled to space and back for the second time. Running Out of Toes mission was also a debut flight for a redesigned stainless steel heat shield on the first stage. According to the company, it seemed to perform well and protected Stage 1 from the enormous heat loads and forces during re-entry.

Love At The First Insight mission saw another update in the vehicle’s design that included an advanced parachute that was deployed from the first stage at a higher altitude, improvements to the heat shield, and added thermal protection system.

Recovery Mission Profile

This mission’s retrieval process went as follows. First, the reaction control system reoriented the booster 180° for re-entry. This orientation, as well as the heat shield, helped the vehicle withstand temperatures up to 2400 °C as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speeds (~8 times the speed of sound). After decelerating to supersonic speeds (< Mach 2), Electron deployed a drogue parachute that stabilized the stage and continued slowing it down. Then, the main parachute came into play at an altitude of 5.7 km (19,000 ft) to increase drag even further and make a soft landing in the ocean possible. Unlike the previous two recovery missions, this step took place earlier and at a higher altitude to increase the drift-time of Electron’s first stage to test communications and tracking for future aerial recovery efforts.

After that, a helicopter stationed in the recovery zone was deployed to observe and track the descending stage. The helicopter did not attempt a mid-air capture but recorded data that will help in the future missions. After splashdown, Rocket Lab’s recovery crew fished Electron out of the water using the Ocean Recovery Capture Apparatus (ORCA). The recovered stage was then returned to the production complex for inspection. In the latest press conference, Peter Beck mentioned that the booster returned in excellent condition.

Mission profile for Love At First Insight mission
Mission profile for Love At First Insight mission. (Credit: Rocket Lab via Twitter)

Therefore, Love At The First Insight mission provided Rocket Lab with even more data on the recovery process and efficiency of the introduced updates. If everything goes as planned, Rocket Lab will be able to move into the final phase of the recovery program – mid-air recovery with a helicopter – in the first half of 2022. For this mission, the company will use another helicopter that has a higher lifting capacity. Check out their demo video that illustrates all steps of the recovery program!

Timeline

Pre-Launch

Hrs:Min:Sec
From Lift-Off
Events
– 04:00:00Road to the launch site is closed
– 04:00:00Electron is raised vertical, fueling begins
– 02:30:00Launch pad is cleared
– 02:00:00LOx load begins
– 02:00:00Safety zones are activated for designated marine space
– 00:30:00Safety zones are activated for designated airspace
– 00:18:00GO/NO GO poll
– 00:02:00Launch auto sequence begins

Launch

Hrs:Min:Sec
From Lift-Off
Events (Recovery Events Are In Orange)
– 00:00:02Rutherford engine ignition
00:00:00Lift-Off
+ 00:02:27Main Engine Cut-Off (MECO) on Electron’s first stage
+ 00:02:30Stage 1 separation
+ 00:02:34Stage 2 Rutherford engine ignition
+ 00:03:05Fairing separation
+ 00:04:40Stage 1 begins descent
+ 00:07:26Battery jettison
+ 00:07:37Drogue deployment
+ 00:08:21Main chute deployment
~+ 00:08:21Recovery helicopter reconnaissance begins
+ 00:08:30Stage 1 splashdown
+ 00:10:15Electron reaches orbit
+ 00:10:19Stage 2 engine cut-off
+ 00:10:23Stage 2 separation from Kick Stage
+ 00:51:40Kick Stage Curie engine ignition
+ 00:53:14Curie engine cut-off
~+ 00:55:00BlackSky payloads 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 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).

Electron launch vehicle, Rocket Lab
Electrons at the production facility. (Credit: Rocket Lab via Twitter)

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 22 times (19 of them were fully successful) and delivered 107 satellites into orbit.

First and Second Stage

First StageSecond Stage
Engine9 Rutherford engines1 vacuum optimized Rutherford engine
Thrust Per Engine24 kN (5,600 Ibf)25.8 kN (5,800 Ibf)
Specific Impulse (ISP)311 s343 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.

For this 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 Engine

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.

Electron's engine[
The CEO of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck, standing next to an Electron rocket holding a Rutherford engine. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

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.

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

Kick Stage

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.

Kick Stages tailored for three individual missions (Credit: Peter Beck via Twitter)

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

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.

An illustration of the deep space version of Photon (Credit: Rocket Lab)

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. 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.

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