Rocket Lab targets moon missions by 2020

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Rocket Lab announces that it will pursue moon missions by 2020.
Image: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab announced that it will make missions to the moon using its new Photon satellite launch platform. The company shared the news at the 70th International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C., late last week.

The private aerospace firm currently launches its Electron rocket from New Zealand. Starting next year, Rocket Lab will begin sending payloads into orbit from its Launch Complex 2 (LC2) site in Wallops Island, Virginia.

Taking Photon to New Lunar Heights

Rocket Lab plans to “support extended-range missions to medium, geostationary, and lunar orbits” with Photon.

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The platform is an evolution of the Los Angeles and New Zealand-based company’s proven Kick Stage system. Launching inside the Electron rocket, the standalone spacecraft will deploy satellites in orbit. The vessel also boasts its own instruments, propulsion, fuel tanks, and more.

The craft operates via a “high-powered iteration” of the 3D printed Curie propulsion system. Photon will notably support missions with a life span of up to five years.

Customers who book an Electron lunar mission can include their own spacecraft on Photon. Additionally, they can leverage Photon itself as a spacecraft and use it as they deem necessary during lunar orbit.

“That’s actually what we see as the icing on the cake,” said Grant Bonin, Rocket Lab’s chief engineer of space systems in a Forbes report. “You get two for the price of one. Even if you’ve got your own separate spacecraft, we’ll give you that ride, but then Photon is not useless after that, quite the opposite.”

According to a press release, “Rocket Lab will combine its Electron launch vehicle, Photon small spacecraft platform, and a dedicated bulk maneuver stage to accomplish extended-range missions and deliver small spacecraft to lunar flyby, Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO), L1/L2 points, or Lunar orbit.”

NRHO is the near-lunar orbit that NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have plotted for the Lunar Gateway.

Lunar Mission Lineup

In just two years, Rocket Lab has proven its spaceflight prowess. To date, the company has launched nine successful Electron missions. The most recent liftoff took place on October 17 from the company’s launch complex in New Zealand.

The rocket deployed a satellite called Palisade for Astro Digital. The 16U CubeSat reportedly blasted off into a circular polar orbit 1,000 kilometers above Earth. The feat marked Rocket Lab’s highest orbit in the company’s launch history.

According to Bonin, customers are already “lined up” for the firm’s first lunar missions. The satellite design, build, and launch service hopes to start sending rockets to the moon by the end of 2020.

“The international community has really shifted focus to the moon heavily in the last couple of years,” the aerospace executive said. “There’s a huge amount of processing that needs to be done, and infrastructure needs to be laid, everything from prospecting for resources to [finding] landing sites. These are all things that small spacecraft are ideally suited for.”

Rocket Lab is one of many smallsat launch companies that have contracts with NASA. Lots of these firms also plan to fly to the moon.

For example, SpaceX is aiming to become the first private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The firm will blast a crewed flight into orbit from American soil via its Crew Dragon rocket as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. In the future, SpaceX plans to make trips to the moon and Mars as well.

During the Artemis mission, NASA plans to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024. In following the space agency’s lead, lots of aerospace companies are accelerating their own lunar goals.

Booming Small Satellite Launch Market

As companies across the globe continue to develop lunar mission plans, the small satellite market is booming. Currently, there is a long list of companies that are waiting to send satellites into orbit. As such, several aerospace firms offer ridesharing launch opportunities—including Rocket Lab.

The space firm’s current customer base launches small satellites that provide a myriad of services, including “Optimized crop monitoring, improved weather reporting, Internet from space, natural disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data and search and rescue services.”

Given the increased lunar focus from the government and private companies, Rocket Lab is aiming to support these interests by expanding its satellite service to reach lunar orbit.

“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’s CEO Peter Beck said in a statement.

“Just like LEO [low Earth orbit] small spacecraft, many potential exploration instruments and full satellites are on shelves waiting for launch to deeper space. 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.”