Rocket Lab, whose new Electron launch vehicle recently reached orbit for the first time, revealed Jan. 23 that the rocket included a previously undisclosed kick stage designed to increase orbital options for small satellites.

During its Jan. 21 mission, the Electron lifted off from New Zealand and deployed three small satellites: a Planet Dove Pioneer for Earth imaging and two Spire Lemur-2s for weather and ship tracking (Defense Daily, Jan. 22). While the rocket’s second stage deployed the Dove, the kick stage coasted for about 40 minutes before firing an engine and placing the Lemur-2 cubesats into their optimal, circularized orbits, Rocket Lab said.

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket lifts off Jan. 21, 2018, in New Zealand. (Photo courtesy of Rocket Lab)
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifts off Jan. 21, 2018, in New Zealand. (Photo courtesy of Rocket Lab)

The kick stage is equipped with its own avionics, power and communications systems, and Rocket Lab plans to offer it as an option for future flights.

“With the new kick stage, Rocket Lab can execute multiple burns to place numerous payloads into different orbits,” the company said.

To minimize space junk, the kick stage is designed to de-orbit after it finishes its mission.

While NASA has signed up as a Rocket Lab customer, the U.S. military has so far shown little interest in the company’s services, said William Ostrove, an aerospace/defense analyst at Forecast International.

“The military does not launch as many small satellites as commercial operators do,” Ostrove said. “When the Department of Defense does launch small satellites, they typically use Minotaur rockets,” which use leftover components from intercontinental ballistic missiles.

DoD also places small satellites as secondary payloads on Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), which loft the department’s larger satellites into space.

“Since the DoD uses EELVs to carry its larger satellites anyway, it makes economic
sense to add a few additional payloads to the flights,” Ostrove explained.

While the company says it can currently meet its customer needs with its New Zealand launch site, it has agreements in place to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska if needed.