Rocket Lab isn't just a launch provider anymore.
The California-based company now has a spacecraft in Earth orbit — the first of its Photon satellite line, which is designed to tote customer payloads to a variety of destinations, including the moon and Venus.
The Photon spacecraft, named "First Light," rode to orbit atop Rocket Lab's 57-foot-tall (17 meters) Electron booster on Aug. 30, company representatives announced today (Sept. 3). The primary payload on that mission was the 220-lb. (100 kilograms) Sequoia, an Earth-observation satellite built by San Francisco-based company Capella Space.
Electron's "kick stage" deployed Sequoia about 60 minutes after liftoff. But instead of deorbiting itself at that point, as generally happens on Electron missions, the kick stage transitioned into Photon satellite mode and stayed aloft.
We didn't know about this Photon activity until today; Rocket Lab had disclosed only that Sequoia would be flying on the Aug. 30 mission, which the company dubbed "I Can't Believe It's Not Optical." (Rocket Lab gives playful names to its Electron launches.)
First Light is still zooming around Earth, snapping photos and beaming them home. The satellite is primarily a technology demonstrator, a way to test Photon's systems in orbit and show customers what the spacecraft is capable of. First Light will stay up for the next five or six years, if all goes according to plan, Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said during a teleconference with reporters today (Sept. 3).
Photon should be attractive to a variety of customers, allowing them to focus on their sensors and other instruments without having to worry about building and operating an entire spacecraft, Rocket Lab representatives have said.
"Launching the first Photon mission marks a major turning point for space users — it’s now easier to launch and operate a space mission than it has ever been," Beck said in a statement today.
"When our customers choose a launch-plus-spacecraft mission with Electron and Photon, they immediately eliminate the complexity, risk, and delays associated with having to build their own satellite hardware and procure a separate launch," he said in the statement.
Rocket Lab announced its Photon plans about a year ago, but the idea has been in the works for much longer than that. The company designed the kick stage for this application from the very beginning, and transitioning to Photon mode on "I Can't Believe It's Not Optical" required no substantive prelaunch prep work, Beck said during today's telecon.
We should expect many more Photon missions in the near future as the company gears up for full-on operational use of the satellite line.
"We can fly one on every mission and add new developments as we go," Beck said during the telecon.
Electron and Photon will enable relatively low-cost missions to a variety of destinations, Rocket Lab representatives have said. For example, NASA has contracted the duo to fly a cubesat mission to the moon in 2021, for an all-inclusive price of $9.95 million.
"$10 million for a launch and spacecraft on a moon mission is pretty crazy," Beck said.
Rocket Lab also plans to launch a private Venus mission in 2023 using Electron and Photon. The project will plan to hunt for possible signs of life in the Venusian clouds, Beck has said.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.