October 21, 2021

With a Space Force launch, Rocket Lab restores Electron to flight

2 min read

The effective launch of a test satellite for the United States Space Force by Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket on July 29 marked the return of the Electron rocket to flight. Space Force is a branch of the United States military. At 2 a.m.  Eastern, the Electron took off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 situated in New Zealand. The rocket’s two stages operated normally, and following a coast phase, the vehicle’s kick stage launched the Monolith satellite into the 600-kilometer orbit with a 37-degree inclination 52 minutes after liftoff.

The launch was Electron’s first since a botched mission on May 15 when the rocket’s second stage engine close down shortly after ignition, preventing the rocket from reaching orbit. According to the corporation, the incident was found to be a “previously undetected failure mode” in the ignition system that had not been encountered in previous launches or ground testing. Because of the fault, signals in the stage’s computer were corrupted, causing the thrust vector control unit to “deviate outside nominal parameters” and forcing the engine to shut down.

Electron’s failure was the third in twenty launches and second in less than one year. To avoid a repeat of the May launch mishap, the corporation added “redundancies” to the ignition system, like adjustments to the design of an igniter and how it is made. “We’re back on the pad today. We have a reliable launch vehicle,” stated Murielle Baker, host of launch’s Rocket Lab webcast.

The mission, dubbed “It’s a Little Chile Up Here” by Rocket Lab, transported a single small satellite named Monolith, which was created by Air Force Research Laboratory and manufactured by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory. The launch was arranged by the Rocket Systems Launch Program and Space Test Program, both of which are part of the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) of the United States Space Force.

Monolith will assess a large deployable sensor developed to fit on one of the sides of the 6U or 12U cubesat, according to SMC. The tests will look at how a sensor with a mass that is “a large fraction” of the spacecraft’s overall mass impacts the spacecraft’s dynamic characteristics and attitude control.

SMC noted that the spacecraft would also “offer a platform to evaluate future space protection possibilities” but did not expand. Monolith was supposed to be the first satellite to launch from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 2 on Wallops Island, Virginia. On the other hand, Rocket Lab said the mission would be transferred to New Zealand “while NASA finishes approval operations for the autonomous flight termination system program for launches” from Launch Complex 2.

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