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

Rocket Lab executed its first launch of the year from New Zealand today, sending an experimental satellite into orbit for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The company’s Electron launch vehicle lifted off from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula right on time, at 4:27 p.m. PT March 28 (12:27 p.m. local time March 29). Launch had been delayed for several days — first, due to concerns about a video transmission system, and then due to unacceptable weather conditions.

About 50 minutes after launch, the Electron’s kick stage successfully deployed DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration satellite, or R3D2, into a 264-mile-high orbit..

“Mission success! Great kick stage burn and final orbit. Perfect flight!” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a tweet.

The 330-pound satellite is designed to unfurl a 7-foot-wide antenna to demonstrate how large structures can be packed within small satellite-size packages.

DARPA’s antenna is as thin as tissue paper but made of super-strong Kapton fabric. Over the course of at least six months, mission managers will monitor the antenna’s deployment and performance.

“The antenna could enable multiple missions that currently require large satellites, to include high data rate communications to disadvantaged users on the ground,” DARPA said in a pre-launch fact sheet.

The mission is also aimed at demonstrating low-cost, rapid-deployment space operations: It took about 18 months to go from satellite design to launch — and DARPA’s launch cost is $6.5 million, which is far less than the norm.

Like Beck, DARPA declared the launch a success via Twitter.

“Space will always hold a special place in our hearts at DARPA … and it’s encouraging to see the launch ecosystem expanding,” the agency said.

Northrop Grumman was the satellite’s prime constructor. MMA Design built the antenna, Trident Systems built R3D2’s software-defined radio and Blue Canyon Technologies provided the spacecraft bus.

Rocket Lab executed its first three successful orbital launches last year. Today’s liftoff was the company’s fourth liftoff. Its fifth is currently set for April. Rocket Lab plans to conduct 12 launches this year, and it’s building a second launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Airport in Virginia.

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