Rocket Lab’s inaugural launch from its new U.S.-based site will be an Air Force Space Test Program payload aboard the Electron rocket, the company said Dec. 12.
The Huntington, California-based small satellite launch company officially opened Launch Complex 2 Thursday at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia. The company previously launched out of its complex on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand and will continue to do so along with the new site.
The ribbon-cutting comes just 10 months after construction began this past February, the company said in a Thursday press release. Rocket Lab performed a site selection process in late 2018 and selected the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport “due to the wide orbital inclinations the site can support, as well as the rapid planned construction timeframe.”
Rocket Lab will launch its Electron rocket carrying the Air Force’s STP-27RM mission, a research-and-development micro-satellite, in spring 2020.
“It’s an honor and privilege to be launching a U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program payload as the inaugural mission from Launch Complex 2,” said Peter Beck, president and CEO of Rocket Lab in the release. “We’ve already successfully delivered STP payloads on Electron from Launch Complex 1, and we’re proud to be providing that same rapid, responsive, and tailored access to orbit from U.S. soil.”
The opening of the Wallops Island launch site will provide potential customers with more than 130 launch opportunities per year, allowing “unmatched control over their launch schedule and orbital requirements,” Beck noted.
Air Force Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise, said the new launch site strengthens the United States’ ability to provide responsive and reliable access to space. Launch Complex 2 will be able to support up to 12 missions per year, and will supplement the 120 launches already possible from Launch Complex 1 per year.
Rocket Lab is working to launch on a bi-monthly basis from Wallops Island by the end of 2020, said Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of global launch services at a Dec. 3 Chamber of Commerce event in Washington, D.C.
Industry sources have told the company that it should expect more demand than 12 launches a year between civil and national security launches, he told Defense Daily in a Dec. 3 interview.
“2020 right now, we’re booked out a launch a month, but the demand is increasing, and what we’ve found in 2019 is a lot of the cubesat customers reached out to us in the spring for a launch in the fall,” he said. “And so I’m just anticipating that a little bit. So I’m advising the company that right now, we know of a launch a month, but I am expecting that same kind of demand from those cubesat companies.”
The company is now ramping up to be able to produce two rockets per month to allow for additional flexibility, he added.
Rocket Lab launched three Electron missions in 2018, and is expected to end 2019 with six launches, Hoffman noted. In 2020 it expects to double that number, and in 2021, it could go to 18 or 20 launches, he added.
The company is beginning to test its capability to recover boosters, “which will help us to get to that launch rate of twice a month, all the way to once a week,” Hoffman said. On Dec. 9, Rocket Lab flew a fully autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) for the first time on an Electron launch vehicle.
“This launch … actually has a lot of the recovery hardware on it,” Hoffman said. “Bringing it in at just the right angle and measuring all of the heat and pressure that we encounter, will let us know whether we even have a shot at it or not.”
Future launches will include deploying parachutes, sending helicopters out to try and catch the booster in mid-air, and eventually having a ship sent out to recover the system as well, he added.
Rocket Lab also has plans to build a second pad at Launch Complex-1 beginning in 2020. “All of these are things that are going to increase the capacity, opening up access to space,” he said. “We’re offering high value, small, dedicated launch to precise orbit … all of these things that are critical to these small payloads.”
The company plans for the Wallops Island site to eventually host an integration and control facility for processing payloads and Electron launch vehicles prior to lift-off. The ICF will house multiple Electron launch vehicles for pre-launch integration and will be home to Launch Complex 2 Range Control operations, payload integrations cleanrooms, and administrative offices.
Rocket Lab officials credited the tireless support of teams from Virginia Space – which owns and operates the MARS station – and the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in the speedy construction of the new site.