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Rocket Lab Electron launch
Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle rises from its launch pad in New Zealand. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab’s two-stage Electron rocket successfully reached Earth orbit and deployed satellites for the first time today, raising hopes for far more ambitious missions to the moon.

Today’s mission, which went up from Rocket Lab’s launch complex on the tip of New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, followed up on the company’s maiden launch last May — which sent an Electron into space but fell short of reaching orbit due to data transmission issues.

This mission was nicknamed “Still Testing,” but unlike the first mission, the objective was not merely to test Rocket Lab’s hardware. The rocket had the additional task of putting three nanosatellites in orbit: an Earth-imaging Dove satellite for Planet, and two Lemur-2 satellites that the Spire space venture would use for tracking ships and monitoring weather.

Rocket Lab had to sit out a December launch opportunity due to weather worries and technical snags. Another chance for liftoff slipped away on Friday night PT (Saturday afternoon New Zealand time), primarily due to interference from a couple of boats that were sailing in an off-limits zone. But today’s countdown went off without a hitch, and the Electron rose smoothly into mostly sunny skies.

Cameras mounted on the rocket’s exterior showed the ascent into orbit, all the way to the second-stage engine’s shutdown and deployment of the satellites.

“Vehicle is orbital,” a member of the mission control team in Auckland reported. Cheers from other mission controllers could be heard in the background.

Rocket Lab is offering the Electron as a low-cost orbital launch vehicle for payloads in the range of 100 to 225 kilograms (220 to 500 pounds). The price tag for a mission is as low as $5 million, thanks to streamlined hardware production techniques. The Electron makes use of carbon composite materials for its rocket core, and 3-D printing techniques for its Rutherford rocket engines.

The company, which has headquarters in Los Angeles as well as New Zealand, already has picked up contracts from NASA and Seattle-based Spaceflight for small-satellite launches. One of Rocket Lab’s highest-profile customers is Florida-based Moon Express, which aims to use an Electron rocket to send its MX-1E lander on the first leg of its journey to the lunar surface.

Co-founded by Seattle-area entrepreneur Naveen Jain, Moon Express is a leading contender in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which would award $20 million to the first team to reach the moon, travel 500 meters and send back live imagery.

The deadline for accomplishing the feat is March 31, and although the contest is coming down to the wire, today’s successful launch signals there might still a chance for Moon Express to win the prize. In a tweet, Moon Express CEO Bob Richards offered “huge congrats” to Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck and the launch team for a successful launch.

Even if Moon Express misses out on the Google Lunar X Prize, it intends to go ahead with commercial lunar missions. In an interview last July, Richards told GeekWire that Moon Express’ bigger objective is to develop a “solar system exploration architecture” that would facilitate cargo shipments to and from the moon.

“Nobody invested in Moon Express to win a prize,” he said.

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