Rocket Lab set to launch Electron Flight 9 as work on new US pad continues

On Thursday, Rocket Lab will attempt to launch its workhorse Electron rocket on its ninth total mission since its debut in 2017, and its fifth mission in 2019 – the most for the company to date. The payload consists of a single satellite provided by California’s Astro Digital as part of a dedicated flight. The…

On Thursday, Rocket Lab will attempt to launch its workhorse Electron rocket on its ninth total mission since its debut in 2017, and its fifth mission in 2019 – the most for the company to date. The payload consists of a single satellite provided by California’s Astro Digital as part of a dedicated flight. The 14-day launch window was opened on Monday at noon NZDT, but was subsequently postponed to Wednesday afternoon – now at 14:22 NZDT – due to inclement weather.

Electron launch:

The mission has been nicknamed “As The Crow Flies”, which is a reference to Astro Digital’s Corvus platform of satellites that range from 6U and 16U CubeSats to ESPA Class spacecraft. (Corvus is also a genus of birds that includes the crow). This will be Astro Digital’s first flight with Rocket Lab.

The payload for Electron’s ninth launch is the Palisade technology demonstrator, a 16U CubeSat that features an onboard propulsion system, an Astro Digital-provided communications system, and an advanced version of Advanced Solutions Incorporated’s MAX Flight Software. The mass of the satellite has not been revealed.

Palisade encapsulated in Electron’s payload fairing after integration – credit: Rocket Lab

Like most previous missions, Rocket Lab’s Electron will utilize its patented kick stage, which is propelled by the “Curie” 3D-printed thruster. The kick stage allows for more flexibility and precision when deploying satellites into their target orbits, and is also capable of deorbiting at the end of a mission.

The Electron rocket that will launch the mission was delivered to Launch Complex 1, or LC-1, on September 12 for pre-flight testing and integration. The vehicle was fully stacked and then rolled out to the launch pad on October 2.

The following day, Rocket Lab launch teams conducted a wet dress rehearsal, which consists of a run-through of the pre-launch countdown and fueling procedures. The test was completed without incident.

Flight 9 wet dress completed by the pro teams at LC-1 and mission control.

— Peter Beck (@Peter_J_Beck) October 4, 2019

Meanwhile, the Palisade payload was integrated onto Electron’s kick stage and safely encapsulated inside the fairing on October 9. These activities helped solidify the October 14 launch date. 

However, thunderstorms began approaching the Launch Complex 1 area late on Sunday, October 13, thereby forcing Rocket Lab to stand down until the weather cleared up. The mission is now slated to launch no earlier than 13:00 local time on Wednesday (midnight Universal Coordinated Time on Thursday) – an hour past the opening of a four-hour daily window. The latest T-0 is is 14:22 local due to red upper level winds.

Launch update?: Thunderstorms are rolling in over Launch Complex 1, but forecasts show a brief reprieve late in the week. As such, we’re currently targeting no earlier than Thursday 17 Oct UTC for the launch of our 9th Electron mission, ‘As The Crow Flies’.

— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) October 14, 2019

The countdown to liftoff will officially begin at T-6 hours when the road to the Mahia launch site will be closed temporarily to ensure the safety of vehicles and residents. At T-4 hours, the Electron launcher will be lifted vertical at LC-1 and loaded with RP-1 fuel (a highly refined form of kerosene).

The launch pad personnel will finish up final preparations and depart the area at 2 hours and 30 minutes prior to liftoff. At T-2 hours, chilled liquid oxygen will begin flowing into both stages of the Electron rocket, and the marine safety zones (regions near the launch site where boats and ships are prohibited from entering) will be activated.

The airspace safety zones will be activated at T-30 minutes –  this will prevent air traffic from passing close to the launch site and posing a threat to anyone onboard during the launch.

At 18 minutes before liftoff, Rocket Lab’s launch director will conduct a go/no-go poll of the launch team and verify that the Electron’s systems are ready for flight. The launch team is in control of the countdown up until T-2 minutes, at which point the Electron’s onboard computers will take over and begin the launch sequence.

Barring any holds in the countdown, the nine Rutherford first stage engines will ignite at T-2 seconds, and – after a final status check by the onboard computers – Electron will lift off at T-0.

Electron launching the ELaNA XIX mission for NASA in December 2018 – credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF

Electron’s first stage motors will fire up until the T+2 minute 35 second mark when they will shut down simultaneously in an event known as Main Engine Cutoff (MECO). Four seconds afterwards, the first and second stages will separate, and the single vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine will ignite at 2 minutes and 42 seconds into the flight.

Electron’s protective payload fairing will be jettisoned at T+3 minutes and 3 seconds – once the second stage and payload have left the Earth’s atmosphere.

Electron will reach orbit at 9 minutes and 8 seconds into the flight, with Second Engine Cutoff (SECO) – the shutdown of the vacuum Rutherford engine – occurring six seconds later. The Curie-powered kick stage with the Palisade spacecraft will separate from the second stage at T+9 minutes and 18 seconds.

Following a nearly hour-long coast phase, the Curie engine will fire at T+1 hour, 8 minutes, and 33 seconds, with engine shutdown taking place at the 1 hour, 10 minute, and 36 second mark.

Finally, the Palisade satellite will separate from the kick stage at T+1 hour, 11 minutes, and 22 seconds. The kick stage will then fire its Curie engine one last time a short while later to deorbit itself, which will help to minimize the amount of debris left in orbit following the launch.

Launch Complex 2 pad work:

This launch will come nearly a month after Rocket Lab announced the completion of a key milestone regarding the construction of their second launch site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which is known as Launch Complex 2 (LC-2).

The 66-ton launch platform that supports the Electron rocket during the pre-launch countdown was successfully installed sometime in mid-September, therefore allowing for the installation of the 44-foot long strongback at a later date. This work is just the latest at Rocket Lab’s newest launch site, which will begin hosting Electron launches from American soil in early 2020.

Rocket Lab selected Wallops Flight Facility at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) as their first U.S. launch location in October 2018, and officially broke ground for LC-2 construction in February 2019. Wallops was picked in part due to its low orbital inclination launch abilities, as well as greater range availability for orbital flights.

In the few months since the beginning of construction at the site, over 1,400 cubic yards (37,800 cubic feet) of concrete has been poured to create the pad on which Electron’s launch platform is currently mounted. LC-2 is intended to mirror Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1, which sees the Electron rocket transported horizontally along the launch ramp and lifted to vertical once at the pad.

With the installation of the launch platform, all work at the site will be focused on the integration of the various pad systems that will support Electron launches, such as the propellant farms and electrical systems. Rocket Lab is looking to complete these activities by December 2019, at which point the company will begin final testing and commissioning of the launch site.

Aerial view of Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 2 following launch platform installation – credit: Rocket Lab

Launch Complex 2 will be able to host up to 12 Electron launches per year, and is specifically tailored to launch U.S. government and commercial missions.

Rocket Lab will announce the customer and payload for the first U.S.-based Electron flight in the coming weeks.

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