Rocket Lab Aims for the Moon and Beyond with New Photon Satellite Platform

Rocket Lab plans to launch small spacecraft to the moon and beyond using its new Photon satellite platform, Electron rockets and a bulk maneuvering stage. The first Photon vehicle could fly in 2020.
Rocket Lab plans to launch small spacecraft to the moon and beyond using its new Photon satellite platform, Electron rockets and a bulk maneuvering stage. The first Photon vehicle could fly in 2020. (Image credit: Rocket Lab)

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab is shooting for the moon. Literally. 

The small-satellite launch startup announced today (Oct. 21) that its new Photon satellite platform will be able to fly small spacecraft on deep-space missions to the moon and beyond. The plan will combine Rocket Lab's workhorse Electron rocket with Photon, a vehicle designed to provide end-to-end spaceflight services for customer payloads.

The move, Rocket Lab says, will allow the company to go beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) and bring "medium, geostationary, and lunar orbiters within reach for small satellites," according to a statement. To reach the moon, the company will add what it calls a "bulk maneuver stage" to the Electron-Photon combo to allow lunar flyby and moon-orbiting missions. 

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NASA plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, and Rocket Lab sees small satellites playing a major role in that effort. 

"Small satellites will play a crucial role in science and exploration, as well as providing communications and navigation infrastructure to support returning humans to the moon," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in the statement. "In the same way we opened access to LEO for smallsats, Rocket Lab is poised to become the dedicated ride to the Moon and beyond for small satellites."

Rocket Lab unveiled the Photon satellite platform in April at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The vehicle is an evolution of the company's "kick stage," a single-engine craft used to deliver payloads into their final circular orbits around Earth, and is expected carry payloads of up to 375 lbs. (170 kilograms) for up to five years, Rocket Lab has said.

The first Photon mission could fly by late 2020, company representatives said today.

The company's 57-foot-tall (17 meters) Electron booster made its launch debut in 2017 and is designed to launch payloads of up to 500 lbs. (227 kg) into low Earth orbit for $5 million per flight. To date, the company has launched nine missions, including its highest mission yet, which lifted off last week.

That mission, called "As The Crow Flies," lifted off from Rocket Lab's Launch Site 1 on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula on Oct. 17 local time. It delivered a small satellite called Palisade into an orbit 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) above Earth for customer Astro Digital. 

Meanwhile, Rocket Lab is busy building its second launchpad, called Launch Site 2, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. The company is also aims to eventually reuse the first stage of its Electron boosters. To do that, it is developing a method to have the booster parachute back to Earth and catch it in mid-air with a helicopter. 

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.