Featured Image: Rocket Lab
Lift Off Time
|July 13, 2022 – 06:30 UTC | 18:30 NZT|
|Wise One Looks Ahead (NROL-162)|
|National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)|
|Rocket Lab LC-1A, Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand|
Where did the satellite go?
Did they attempt to recover the first stage?
Where did the first stage land?
|It crashed into the Pacific Ocean|
Did they attempt to recover the fairings?
|No, this is not a capability of Rocket Lab|
Were these fairings new?
This was the:
|– 28th launch of Electron|
– 27th mission for a Rocket Lab customer
– 3rd mission for the NRO
– 82nd orbital launch attempt of 2022 (80th successful)
Where to watch
How Did It Go?
Rocket Lab successfully launched their first of two Electron rockets scheduled to launch within nine days of each other from adjacent pads. Both pads are located at their launch site LC-1 on the Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. In addition, both missions are for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) who are collaborating with the Australian Defense Agency. The Wise One Looks Ahead (NROL-162) mission did not see the recovery of the Electron first stage.
What Is NROL-162?
A typical aspect of missions for the National Reconnaissance Office is the secrecy behind the payload details and function. This is due to their purpose of providing information to the United States goverment and other global governments, giving them the ability to access interntational situations. In this case, the payload has been designed, built, and will be operated by the NRO in partnership with the Australian Department of Defence.
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 mini-satellites) 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 light weight. 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 27 times (24 of them were fully successful) and delivered 147 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 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 fabrication of 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 turbo-machinery just to drive those pumps. Rocket Lab decided to use battery technology instead, which eliminated 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 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.
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 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. NASA has already used the deep-space version of Photon for its robotic Moon mission CAPSTONE. On this mission, the Photon spacecraft delievered 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.