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article imageRocket Lab kicks off new year with U.S. spysat launch

By Karen Graham     Jan 31, 2020 in Technology
Rocket Lab successfully launched a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office Jan. 30 in the first of up to a dozen launches planned by the company this year, while chalking up another big step toward rocket reusability in the process.
After a delay of about three hours due to high winds, Rocket Lab's two-stage Electron rocket lifted off from the company’s launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula January 30, at 9:56 p.m. Eastern. The launch, dubbed “Birds of a Feather” by Rocket Lab, was the 11th mission for the Electron rocket and its first launch of 2020 after a successful 2019.
The nature of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) NROL-151 payload was not revealed, however, in 2018, the NRO’s director at the time, Betty Sapp, said the agency wanted “to explore what the tiny rocket marketplace can provide for us.”
California-based Rocket Lab is cleared for U.S. governmental and military launches. It has previously sent payloads into orbit for NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as well as for civilian satellite operators, according to Geek Wire.
Rocket Lab hopes to use helicopters to retrieve rockets for refurbishment.
Rocket Lab hopes to use helicopters to retrieve rockets for refurbishment.
Rocket Lab
“Starting our 2020 launch manifest with a successful mission for the NRO is an immensely proud moment for our team. It once again demonstrated our commitment to providing responsive, dedicated access to space for government small satellites,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement.
Reusability of booster
Upstart Rocket Lab is already cementing itself as a leader in the smallSat launcher market. The company's Electron two-stage booster is 57 feet tall and four feet wide (17 by 1.2 meters). The Electron can loft a maximum of about 500 pounds (225 kilograms) on each roughly $5 million per liftoff.
Like its competitor, SpaceX, Rocket Lab is also looking to shave costs to keep the Electron small and cost-effective. To that end, in Electron's previous launch on December 6, the company managed to guide the booster back down in a controlled descent.
This first attempt was part of a carefully planned step-by-step workup to retrieving a returning booster rocket to Earth using a helicopter.
The company plans on trying to catch the first stage before it splashes down, in mid-air, with a helicopter. After launch and the separation of its payload, the Electron rocket's first stage would re-enter the atmosphere, deploying a parachute to reduce its velocity.
"The Electron first stage performed well on the way down. It oriented itself properly during the descent, maintained the correct "angle of attack" throughout and slowed to about 560 mph (900 km/h) by the time it reached sea level when it disintegrated upon impact," Rocket Lab representatives said after the December 6 launch.
And just so you know, Rocket Lab was successful again. The booster oriented itself vertically to better withstand the heat and pressure as it came back to Earth, just like it was programmed to do and made it all the way back down.
More about Rocket Lab, national reconnaissance office, Spy satellite, booster recovery, Technology
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