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

Rocket Lab sent a trio of research satellites for the U.S. military into orbit tonight from a launch pad that’s thousands of miles from America’s shores, in New Zealand.

The Los Angeles-based company’s low-cost Electron rocket lifted off from its seaside launch facility on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 6 p.m. May 5 local time (11 p.m. PT May 4). It was Rocket Lab’s second launch of 2019, and its sixth mission overall.

After liftoff, the Electron’s second stage separated from the first-stage booster, and then released its “kick stage” to deploy the satellites in orbit.

“Perfect flight, complete mission success, all payloads deployed!!” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck tweeted.

Rocket Lab is known for giving each mission a quirky name. That’s in line with the sensibility associated with New Zealanders, including Beck. This mission was nicknamed “That’s a Funny-Looking Cactus,” which serves as a nod to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the Defense Department’s Space Test Program is headquartered.

The three satellites sent up for the Space Test Program’s STP-27RD mission include:

  • Harbinger, built by Denver-based York Space Systems. The satellite is designed to demonstrate an X-band synthetic aperture radar system — and, more generally, demonstrate to the Pentagon that York’s 150-kilogram (330-pound) S-Class satellites can satisfy its operational requirements. This marks York’s first satellite launch.
  • SPARC-1, also known as the Space Plug-and-Play Architecture Research Cubesat-1. This U.S.-Swedish satellite is designed to demonstrate the use of modular, miniaturized avionics for military applications in space.
  • Falcon ODE, or the Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment, built by the Air Force Academy. This 4-inch-wide nanosatellite will release two stainless-steel ball bearings that will be tracked from the ground to watch for changes in background atmospheric density over time. The goal of the experiment is to fine-tune techniques for monitoring orbital debris and getting a better fix on space situational awareness.

Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 has been cleared for U.S. government and military missions even though it’s located in a country half a world away. The company is building a second launch complex much closer to home, at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island.

The Electron rocket is designed to put payloads weighing as much as 225 kilograms (500 pounds) in low Earth orbit for a bargain-basement price of $5 million. The total payload for tonight’s launch came to more than 180 kilograms (400 pounds), which was the most weight launched on an Electron to date.

This report was updated at 12:20 a.m. PT May 5 to note successful satellite deployment.

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