Rocket Lab’s electron booster blasted off the east coast of Virginia on Tuesday, launching three radio mapping satellites into orbit in the company’s first launch from US soil. It was the first commercial rocket to use NASA-developed autonomous self-destruct software, designed to reduce costs while ensuring public safety.
“This flight just doesn’t symbolize another launch pad for Rocket Lab,” said company founder Peter Beck. “It’s countering a new capability for the nation. This is the new AFTS (Automatic Flight Termination) system being introduced online for the industry. And it’s a new rocket to Virginia and Wallops Flight Facility.”
A month late due to weather and holiday scheduling, the 60-foot-tall Electron blasted off with a fiery exhaust at 6 p.m. EST and quickly launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on NASA’s Wallops Island. , Virginia, flight center.
All missiles launched from the US must be equipped with self-destruct systems capable of rapidly destroying the off-course booster before any debris reaches a populated area. In previous U.S. launches, military personnel, using tracking radars and other systems, were ready to transmit self-destruct signals if necessary.
But SpaceX now uses a company-developed automatic self-destruct system designed specifically for Falcon 9 rockets that requires far fewer people to operate. Electron is the first to use NASA software that does the same thing but can be configured for any rocket.
“Autonomous flight termination technology reduces the need for specific resources and ground personnel, ultimately leading to cost savings,” said David Pierce, director of the Wallops Flight Facility.
“To date, 18 companies have requested software through NASA’s technology transfer process,” Pierce added. “Rocket Lab was one of the first software candidates to launch Wallops. It was a great milestone.”
After the Electron was launched from the lower atmosphere, the nine Rutherford engines at the base of the first stage shut down, and the single engine powering the second stage took over for the next seven minutes.
At this point, the third stage “kick” with three HawkEye 360 radio mapping satellites separated to fly on its own. After a scheduled launch phase engine firing about an hour after launch, the satellites were to be launched into a 341-mile-altitude orbit.
HawkEye 360 satellites are launched in clusters of three. They are designed to scan the sky to find and map radio transmissions from the ground, air and space, data useful to the military, law enforcement and other civil and commercial users.
Prior to Tuesday’s flight, Rocket Lab launched 152 small satellites in 29 successful launches from two Electron pads in. The company plans to launch electrons from Wallops on a regular basis and is developing a larger, fully reusable rocket called the Neutron, which will be built and launched from Virginia.
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