Rocket Lab Sets Payload Sights on the Moon

James Marshall
October 22, 2019

Two years after it started firing small satellites into low Earth orbit using Electron, Rocket Lab is now planning to send small satellites into "medium, geostationary, and lunar orbits" using Electron and Photon. Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck said in a press release announcing the news that this is in response to additional inbound interest in reaching these orbits, from both government and private sector clients.

The experience gained through multiple orbital Electron launches, and iterative performance improvements to Photon's Curie propulsion system, enables Rocket Lab to undertake extended range missions with proven technology and significant experience. This allowed the company to deliver a payload to an altitude of 1,000 km (600 mi) on the ninth Electron launch.

Asked if Photon could reach other planets a Rocket Lab spokeswoman said its focus was on low Earth and lunar orbits for now, but missions beyond that were not off the table.

The plan is to use the existing Electron rocket, the Photon small spacecraft platform, and "a dedicated bulk maneuver stage" to send a payload on a lunar flyby or into lunar orbit, to Lagrange points or to the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) favoured by NASA for its Lunar Gateway station.

"Many potential exploration instruments and full satellites are on shelves waiting for launch to deeper space", Beck said.

With launchpads in New Zealand and (soon) the USA, small-sat flinger Rocket Lab toasted a ninth successful launch of its Electron rocket by taking aim at destinations beyond Low Earth Orbit. The combined stack will likely be capable of carrying a payload of around 100 kilograms to lunar orbit, although no specific payload capacity for lunar missions has yet been revealed.

As a high-power and radiation-tolerant vehicle that supports deep space communication and navigation, Photon has been designed with missions beyond LEO in mind.

· Payload deorbiting upon mission completion.

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck with the company's controversial Humanity Star which was created to be visible from Earth after being fired into orbit. The plan will combine Rocket Lab's workhorse Electron rocket with Photon, a vehicle created to provide end-to-end spaceflight services for customer payloads.

Rocket Lab unveiled the Photon satellite platform in April at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Electron is a fully carbon-composite launch vehicle tailored for small satellites.

Rocket Lab's 18 metre long Electron rocket is powered by a 3D-printed engine.

Such missions would launch from Rocket Lab's Mahia site and its second launch site now under construction on Wallops Island in Virginia, US.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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