Rocket Lab Secretly launched the First Photon Satellite18th Sep 2020
Rocket Lab has done it again. In a brilliant turn of events, the Electron rocket’s kick stage turned out to be a fully functional satellite. This was during its 14th mission carried out last month, during which the company launched Photon, a spacecraft designed and built by Rocket Lab. It has been in development since 2019, and its successful launch into space is a big step forward for the company.
The satellite, named First Light, hitched a ride on the Electron rocket, where the only other payload was the Sequoia satellite belonging to Capella Space, designated for radar imaging of the earth.
Rocket Lab has taken this step forward to build and launch satellites of its own after enjoying a lot of success with the Electron launcher. The First Light is meant to be a demo platform to test its capabilities, systems, and avionics to benefit both Rocket Lab and its eager customers.
The successful launch means that the company will not only be providing launch platforms but go one step further and provide the satellite. Hence, customers will need to solely focus on the payload and leave the spacecraft to Rocket Lab. “For the first time, we are providing a complete end-to-end service,” said Peter Beck, the CEO of Rocket Lab.
Beck did say that the company intends to conduct further demo launch tests before it can begin carrying payloads for customers. He added that more satellite versions are in development and will be flown on other launches for further testing. If all goes well, this could be the platform that launches the CAPSTONE lunar capsule for NASA to be placed in orbit around the moon in 2021.
The company aims to provide flexible turnkey solutions without many of the usual satellite payload restrictions by providing a versatile spacecraft carrier, launch services, and ground station control. Beck also mentioned that the company already has various partners interested in the Photon program, although he did not name any of them. He added, “We’ve got a great launch business, but in 2020 and onwards, you can’t just be a launch company.”
A Kick Into Space
While Rocket Lab hopes this trick won’t attract as much backlash as the previous Humanity Star disco-ball satellite launch, Beck isn’t remorseful. He says he likes to “do stuff and make sure it’s all good, and it works before announcing it.”
The First Light certainly works. It was launched while disguised as the kick stage, which, after separation, received a command to turn into a fully functioning satellite. The spacecraft is expected to remain in orbit for 6-7 years, while Rocket Lab puts it through its paces.