Rocket Lab Sets Date for First Electron Launch

Rocket Lab's Electron Rocket
Rocket Lab's first Electron rocket, seen here in a hangar at the company's New Zealand launch site, is scheduled for launch during a 10-day window that opens May 21. (Image credit: Rocket Lab)

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab, the U.S.-New Zealand company developing the Electron small launch vehicle, plans to carry out its first flight in a window that opens May 21.

The company announced May 14 that a 10-day window for the first Electron launch, which the company has dubbed "It's a Test," will open at 5 p.m. Eastern May 21 (9 a.m. local time May 22) from the company's launch site at Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island.

"We are all incredibly excited to get to this point," Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement about the planned launch. "Our talented team has been preparing for years for this opportunity and we want to do our best to get it right."

The company is setting expectations for a test launch that may suffer delays and could end in failure. "During this first launch attempt it is possible we will scrub multiple attempts as we wait until we are ready and conditions are favorable," Beck said in the statement.

The launch, as the company's name for it emphasizes, is a test flight, with no satellite payload on board. The launch is the first of three such test flights Rocket Lab plans before beginning commercial launches later this year.

Rocket Lab plans to carry out the launch largely out of public view. The company said a press kit about the mission that there will be no public viewing sites in the vicinity of its New Zealand launch site for this mission. There are also no plans to webcast the launch, although the company said it will provide video footage "following a successful launch."

Although Rocket Lab is launching from New Zealand, the company is headquartered in the United States, and thus will require a launch license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for this and future Electron missions. As of May 14, the FAA had not published a launch license for this flight.

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket on the pad at the company's New Zealand launch site during tests prior to this month's planned launch. (Image credit: Rocket Lab)

The Electron is a small launch vehicle capable of placing up to 150 kilograms into a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. The rocket's first stage is powered by nine Rutherford engines, burning liquid oxygen and kerosene for two and a half minutes. A single modified Rutherford engine is used on the second stage, which releases the rocket's payload into orbit seven and a half minutes after liftoff.

Rocket Lab had planned to launch Electron last year, but suffered delays because of both vehicle and launch site development. In a March interview, Beck said he still hoped to perform five to seven launches this year, including the three test launches and initial commercial missions.

Among its customers is Moon Express, a Florida-based company facing a deadline of the end of this year to launch its commercial lunar lander in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Other customers include NASA, who awarded the company a Venture Class Launch Services contract in 2015, and Planet and Spire, two companies developing constellations of Earth-monitoring cubesats.

In March, Rocket Lab announced that it had raised $75 million in a Series D financing round, led by two venture capital firms, Data Collective and Promus. The company has raised $148 million to date, and said the new round would allow it to increase Electron production capacity.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.