Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft

24th Mar 2021

Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft is one of the latest developments from this private aerospace company. The company has been successfully launching its lightweight rocket Electron for several years now and has become one of the leaders in the cost-effective small satellite launch niche. However, Rocket Lab is not going to stop there. The company’s main goal is to provide a full range of space payload delivery services. “You don’t need to build a rocket. No need to build a spaceship. In fact, you don’t even need to design your sensor – you can just give us a specification, and we’ll do it,” says Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck.

What is Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft?

In the spring of 2019, the company announced that it had created a universal custom satellite platform Photon based on the Electron’s Upper Stage. In fact, it is a small spacecraft with its own engine, orientation and communication systems, and solar panels for generating energy. Rocket Lab calls the device a lifesaver for space satellites and says Electron and Photon will now be able to deliver client payloads ranging from 40 to 200 kg anywhere into space.

In particular, the spacecraft will be used for: 

  • accurate deployment in orbit
  • deploying multiple payloads at different planes/inclinations
  • entering a circumlunar trajectory or Lagrange points L1 / L2
  • access to higher orbits, which cannot be accessed with launch vehicles only
  • de-orbiting payload after mission completion

In September 2020, as part of the next Electron mission, the Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft was successfully launched into low earth orbit. First, an interorbital space tug called First Light was used as a kick stage for Electron, which successfully launched the Capella Space Sequoia satellite into orbit. After, the spacecraft was put into stand-alone satellite mode and embarked on its own mission of demonstrating the operation of Photon bus payload hosting.

Mission to the Moon 

Rocket Lab already has its first Photon customer – NASA. In 2021, the company will launch Photon with Capstone satellite to the Moon. The satellite’s mission is to test the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit parameters, which will subsequently host the Gateway orbital station as part of the Artemis mission. Capstone will also test a navigation system. This system should measure NASA’s lunar reconnaissance orbiter (LRO) position without relying on ground stations.

Rocket Lab will have to cover a distance of almost 400 thousand km to deliver the Capstone to lunar orbit. First, Electron will deliver the satellite to low Earth orbit, and Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft will take over after that. To gain the required Photon propulsion, the spacecraft will rotate in elliptical orbits around the Earth for nine days. Capstone is scheduled for launch in the second quarter of 2021.

The Rocket Lab team conducts final Photon propulsion tests, designs flight trajectories, prepares the launch pad and communication systems for the mission. If all goes well, the next Rocket Lab’s Photon mission will take the spacecraft to Venus, according to the company’s ambitious plans.

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