Rocket Lab launches 2nd shoebox-sized climate satellite for NASA (video)

Rocket Lab launched the second of two cubesats for NASA's PREFIRE climate change mission on Tuesday night (June 4).

An Electron rocket topped with the tiny satellite lifted off from Rocket Lab's New Zealand site Tuesday at 11:15 p.m. EDT (0315 GMT and 3:15 p.m. local New Zealand time on June 5). 

Tonight's launch was the second attempt for this mission. The first try, on Friday (May 31), ended in a scrub, thanks to an "out-of-family sensor reading."

Related: NASA's twin spacecraft will go to the ends of the Earth to combat climate change

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launches the second of two cubesats for NASA's PREFIRE climate mission from New Zealand on June 4, 2024.

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launches the second of two cubesats for NASA's PREFIRE climate mission from New Zealand on June 4, 2024. (Image credit: Rocket Lab via X)

PREFIRE is short for "Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-Infrared Experiment." As that name suggests, the mission will study heat loss from Earth's polar regions, gathering data that should help scientists better understand our warming world

"A lot of the heat radiated from the Arctic and Antarctica is emitted as far-infrared radiation, but there is currently no detailed measurement of this type of energy," Rocket Lab wrote in a mission description.

"The water vapor content of the atmosphere, along with the presence, structure and composition of clouds, influences the amount of far-infrared radiation that escapes into space from Earth's poles," the company added. "Data collected from PREFIRE will give researchers information on where and when far-infrared energy radiates from the Arctic and Antarctic environments into space."

Artist's illustration of NASA's two PREFIRE cubesats in orbit around Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

PREFIRE will collect this data using two shoebox-sized cubesats. Rocket Lab launched the first of the satellites on May 25, sending it to a 326-mile-high (525-kilometer-high) circular orbit above Earth.

This second PREFIRE craft was deployed successfully into a slightly different orbit with the same altitude. If all goes according to plan, the duo's paths will cross every few hours near the planet's poles.

Rocket Lab called this second mission, which was its 49th orbital launch to date, "PREFIRE and Ice." The company named the May 25 liftoff "Ready, Aim, PREFIRE."

Rocket Lab is working to make the first stage of the 59-foot-tall (18-meter-tall) Electron reusable; the company has recovered boosters from the sea on multiple previous launches, but no such activity occurred on "Ready, Aim, PREFIRE" or "PREFIRE and Ice." 

Editor's note: This story was updated at 1:55 a.m. ET on June 5 with news of a successful launch and satellite deployment.

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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.