Space Launch Startup Rocket Lab Is Building Satellites Now, Too

Rocket Lab's Photon satellite platform, which is an evolution of the "kick stage" for the company's Electron rocket.
Rocket Lab's Photon satellite platform, which is an evolution of the "kick stage" for the company's Electron rocket. (Image credit: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab isn't content to just build launch vehicles anymore. 

The California-based startup, which lofts small spacecraft to orbit with a rocket called Electron, just unveiled an in-house satellite platform designed to host customer payloads.

The idea behind this satellite line, known as Photon, is to provide end-to-end spaceflight services, allowing customers to concentrate on developing their payloads and generating revenue, Rocket Lab representatives said. The project was unveiled Monday (April 8) at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Related: In Photos: Rocket Lab and Its Electron Booster

"Small-satellite operators want to focus on providing data or services from space, but building satellite hardware is a significant barrier to achieving this," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement.

"As the turnkey solution for complete small-satellite missions, Rocket Lab brings space within easy reach," Beck added. "We enable our customers to focus on their payload and mission. We look after the rest."

Photon fits well with Rocket Lab's core mission, which involves greatly increasing access to space. Indeed, the satellite program was part of Rocket Lab's vision from the very beginning, Beck said.

The other part of that vision centers on the 57-foot-tall (17 meters) Electron, a two-stage, expendable rocket that can loft about 500 lbs. (227 kilograms) to orbit on each $5 million liftoff.

Electron has flown four satellite-lofting missions to date, all of them successful. The most recent liftoff, which orbited the R3D2 experimental satellite for the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), occurred late last month.

The company aims to ramp up Electron's flight cadence soon. If all goes according to plan, Rocket Lab will launch about a dozen Electron missions in 2019, Beck has said. (The next liftoff, a mission for the U.S. Air Force, is scheduled for later this month.)

A Photon satellite (front) and an Electron rocket upper stage on the floor at a Rocket Lab facility.  (Image credit: Rocket Lab)

The Photon satellite is an evolution of the Electron's "kick stage," a single-engine craft that circularizes the orbits of small satellites toward the end of Rocket Lab missions. 

Photon is designed to operate in low-Earth orbit for up to five years and can accommodate payloads weighing as much as 375 lbs. (170 kg), Rocket Lab representatives said. The satellite platform features its own avionics suite and communications and attitude-control systems.

Photons are built at Rocket Lab's headquarters in Huntington Beach, California. The first operational Photon is scheduled to launch late this year, from the company's New Zealand pad. Customer missions should follow in 2020, Rocket Lab representatives said.

When the Photon line is up and running, the time from order to launch will be as little as four months, company representatives added.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.