Love At First Insight | Electron

Lift Off Time/Launch Window
(Subject to change)
NET September, 2021
Mission Name
Love At First Insight, two Earth observation microsatellites for BlackSky’s constellation
Launch Provider
(What rocket company is launching it?)
Rocket Lab
Customer
(Who’s paying for this?)
Spaceflight Inc. for BlackSky
Rocket
Electron
Launch Location
Launch Complex-1A, Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand
Payload mass
120 kg (~260 Ib)
Where is/are the satellite(s) going?
430 km circular low Earth orbit (LEO) at a 50° 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?
Yes
How’s the weather looking?
TBD
This will be the:
– 22nd Electron launch
– 5th Rocket Lab launch of 2021

86th orbital launch attempt of 2021
Where to watch
Once an official livestream is available, you can find it here

What does all this mean?

Rocket Lab is preparing for its Love At First Insight mission that will launch from Launch Complex-1A, Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand. On the Love At First Insight mission, Electron will carry two Earth-observation microsatellites for BlackSky’s constellation into a 430 km low Earth orbit (LEO) at 50° inclination.

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 will be the first of three back-to-back-to-back missions dedicated for BlackSky. These three launches are scheduled starting from late August through September 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 is a dedicated mission to lift two 60 kg microsatellites for BlackSky’s global constellation. Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. is responsible for arranging the launch, as well as for the mission management and integration services for BlackSky.

This is not the first time that Rocket Lab will provide 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. 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 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 will use an interesting Russian doll-like payload’s configuration in the fairing. BlackSky’s two microsatellites will be 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)

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
– 00:00:02Rutherford engine ignition
00:00:00Lift-Off
+ 00:02:30Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) on Electron’s first stage
+ 00:02:33Stage 1 separation
+ 00:02:36Stage 2 Rutherford engine ignition
+ 00:03:11Fairing separation
+ 00:06:05Battery hot-swap
+ 00:08:45Electron reaches orbit
+ 00:08:53Stage 2 separation from Kick Stage
+ 00:51:20Kick Stage Curie engine ignition
+ 00:53:03Curie engine cut off
~+ 01:00:00BlackSky 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 getting ready for the mission They Go Up So Fast (Credit: Rocket Lab)

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 105 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.

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.

1 comment
  1. I suspect neither RocketLab nor ArianeSpace will approve of this phrasing, but: They’re putting a SYLDA on the Electron! (Okay, maybe it’s a SYLDE?)

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