SpaceX Rival Rocket Lab Launches NASA’s First Satellite Swarm in New Zealand

SpaceX Rival Rocket Lab Launches NASA’s First Satellite Swarm in New Zealand

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket launched seven satellites to orbit for its latest mission before its booster gently glided its way back down for a parachute-assisted ocean splashdown to test its reusability.

Electron lifted off at 9:27 p.m. ET on Monday from the company’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The launch had been delayed by a few days due to unfavourable weather but when it did finally take off, it all went swimmingly.

The rideshare mission carried seven satellites for three different customers: NASA, Space Flight Laboratory, and Spire Global. NASA’s Starling mission includes four cubesats that are designed to work together as a swarm, testing satellite technologies for autonomous positioning, networking, maneuvering, and decision-making, according to NASA. Starling will test the ability of the satellites to function together as an autonomous community, carrying out tasks as a team and being able to respond to their environment.

Electron was also carrying Space Flight Laboratory’s Telesat’s LEO 3 demonstration satellite to continue tests for its constellation, as well as two Earth-observing weather satellites from Spire Global.

Rocket Lab’s latest mission was called “Baby Come Back,” as the company awaited the return of Electron’s booster in order to make it a reusable rocket.

The rocket’s second stage deployed the satellites to a sun-synchronous orbit, while Electron’s first stage began making its way back to Earth about 17 minutes after liftoff. A parachute guided the first stage back down for an ocean splashdown, and a recovery team fished out the rocket for a successful retrieval. Rocket Lab celebrated the safe return of its rocket booster by writing, “Baby Came Back,” on the company’s Twitter account.

Rocket Lab had previously tested a daredevil approach to recovering its rocket boosters by catching them mid-air with the help of a helicopter, allowing the company to avoid getting its rockets wet.

The California-based company attempted its mid-air booster catch twice last year, and both times the booster ended up in the ocean. Although the whole point was to prevent the rocket’s first stage from being submerged in the water to increase its potential for reusability, Electron did just fine after its swim. As a result, Rocket Lab opted to bail on using a helicopter to transport the booster to shore and instead just fish the rocket out of the ocean. Electron was also upgraded with new waterproofing systems to protect key engine and avionics components, according to Rocket Lab.

Being able to reuse its rocket boosters will be a major advantage for the SpaceX rival. Rocket Lab is slowly creeping up on Elon Musk’s private space venture, with this being the seventh launch of its Electron rocket this year and 39th launch overall. Although it’s nowhere near SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9, which lifted off for a record-breaking 60 launches in 2022, Rocket Lab is making its claim in the fast-growing satellite launch market.

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