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Electron launch
Rocket Lab’s Electron Rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab has sent its first payloads for NASA into orbit from its New Zealand launch pad, atop a low-cost Electron rocket powered by 3-D-printed engines.

Liftoff from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula came at 7:33 p.m. Dec. 16 New Zealand time (10:33 p.m. PT Dec. 15), after a two-day delay due to weather concerns.

Ten of the 13 small satellites packed aboard the rocket were funded through NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program, or ELaNa. The other three came along for the ride, and are designed to test new imaging technologies and study how high-frequency radio signals travel through Earth’s ionosphere.

This is the 19th ELaNa mission, but the first conducted under NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program, which is aimed at taking advantage of smaller-scale, lower-cost launch vehicles such as the 56-foot-tall Electron. The fixed-price cost of the launch is $6.9 million, which is roughly a tenth of what a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch would cost.

To help reduce production costs, Rocket Lab takes advantage of carbon composite materials for the rocket core, and 3-D printing techniques for the Electron’s electric-pump-fed Rutherford rocket engines. The Electron is capable of launching 100 to 225 kilograms (220 to 500 pounds) of payload into low Earth orbit.

The Electron executed two successful satellite launches to orbit in January and November, after an initial launch last year that made it to space but fell short of going orbital. Those first three rockets were nicknamed “It’s a Test,” “Still Testing” and “It’s Business Time.” This one was given the name “This One’s for Pickering,” in honor of the late William Pickering, a native New Zealander who became director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Rocket Lab is officially headquartered in the Los Angeles area, but the company has strong New Zealand connections — which include the nationality of its founder, Peter Beck. It’s authorized to conduct launches for U.S. government agencies such as NASA even though those launches are currently done in New Zealand.

A second launch complex is due to open on Virginia’s Wallops Island next year.

The 10 ELaNa satellites were to be deployed from the Electron’s Curie kick-stage booster over the course of nearly an hour. Here’s the lineup of satellites and their developers.

  • ALBus – NASA Glenn Research Center’s Advanced eLectrical Bus is designed to demonstrate a 100-watt power distribution system and solar array system for small satellites.
  • CeREs – NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Compact Radiation Belt Explorer will study radiation belt dynamics, focusing on microbursts of energized electrons.
  • CHOMPTT – The University of Florida’s CubeSat Handling of Multisystem Precision Time Transfer mission will test a system that uses laser signals to synchronize atomic clocks in space and on the ground.
  • CubeSail – Two CubeSats will attempt to separate in orbit, linked by an 820-foot solar sail ribbon. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign plans to demonstrate orbit-raising using solar sail propulsion, potentially spin up the linked satellites like a propeller, and then use the sail to deorbit the satellites.
  • DaVinci – This satellite, built by the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy in Rathdrum, Idaho, is equipped with an Earth-imaging camera and radio transmitters, but its main goal is to promote STEM outreach.
  • ISX – The Ionospheric Scintillation Explorer will study plasma irregularities in the upper atmosphere by measuring their effect on digital-TV signals. ISX was developed by SRI International and California Polytechnic University.
  • NMTSat – An educational satellite built by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology is equipped with magnetometers, a plasma probe, a GPS receiver to study the ionosphere and an optical beacon experiment.
  • RSat – The U.S. Naval Academy’s free-floating experimental satellite is equipped with two robotic arms and mini-manipulators, to test technologies that could eventually be used for orbital inspection and satellite repair.
  • Shields-1 – NASA Langley Research Center’s nanosatellite will test radiation shielding technologies for use on small satellites.
  • STF-1 – Simulation-to-Flight 1 is meant to serve as a testbed for satellite control software.  The mission’s partners include West Virginia University and the NASA Independent Verification and Validation Program.

The other satellites are:

  • AeroCube 11 / Testbed for Optical Missions Satellite – Two nearly identical satellites built by The Aerospace Corp. will test two different types of imagers for Earth observation as well as astronomical observations.
  • SHFT 2 – The Space-Based High Frequency Testbed was developed by JPL and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. It will collect high-frequency radio signals band to study the galactic background emissions, high-frequency signals from Jupiter, and the signals from terrestrial transmitters that pass through the ionosphere.
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