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Watch Rocket Lab lift off from US for first time, put radio-sniffing sats into orbit

Nice of someone to give SpaceX a little competition

Video Rocket Lab this week successfully launched its first Electron rocket from American soil, and put three satellites into low Earth orbit.

The flight began at 1800 EST (2300 UTC) on Tuesday, and sent a small payload into space for HawkEye 360, a US outfit that uses satellites to pinpoint the location of radio-frequency sources, thus allowing it to map and track human activity below on Earth. It was Rocket Lab's first time launching from a spaceport in America, specifically NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia. 

Here's a snap of the rocket lifting off...

...and a video of the full thing if that's your cup of tea:

Youtube Video

The biz usually conducts flights from a launchsite on the Māhia Peninsula, on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island. Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said this first mission from US soil opens up more opportunities to support American companies working across civil, defense, and national security industries. 

"This mission has been a real team effort," he said in a statement. "Thanks to the consistent support of NASA, Virginia Space, the FAA, the Commonwealth and our mission partner HawkEye 360, Rocket Lab is proud to bring a reliable and responsive new launch capability to Virginia's Eastern Shore."

Beck hopes Rocket Lab can launch up to 12 missions per year from its Launch Complex 2 site in Virginia. The biz said it can support 130 or more launch opportunities a year by using its Launch Complex 1 site in New Zealand.

Founded in 2006, the aerospace outfit is headquartered in Long Beach, California, focuses on launching small satellites, and offers customers a range of services besides launch capabilities, including helping them design and manufacture their spacecraft as well as providing flight software. It's said Rocket Lab has become the second-most prolific commercial launch provider in America, with SpaceX leading the charge.

Interestingly, the Electron rocket was fitted with NASA's Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU), developed by the space agency with Rocket Lab.

As the name suggests, this device is designed to automatically blow up the rocket it's attached to if the craft goes off course or malfunctions.

The idea being that this does away with relying on range safety officers to monitor all stages of the flight from the ground and react in time; the machine instead rapidly makes a decision to end the flight if necessary. The unit is also engineered to be fitted to a whole range of vehicles. Thus, NASA officials can provide the unit and its software to launch providers and know that rockets taking off from the agency's pads will thus meet its safety specifications and procedures.

This, we're told, saves providers from coming up with their own proprietary units; reduces launch complexity, resources, and costs; keeps NASA happy or at least reassured; and ensures there's a uniform, baseline approach to automated range safety across multiple launch providers. As NASA put it:

This real-time decision-making capability provides many benefits, such as wider launch windows and smaller downrange safety corridors for boats and aircraft. In addition, since the unit is self-contained and mounted on the rocket, there is a significantly reduced need for ground-based tracking and telemetry systems, which reduces overall operations and maintenance costs. These savings are, in-turn, passed on to launch providers.

"In taking NAFTU across the finish line, NASA has delivered an autonomous flight termination system like no other in operation today filling a critical gap in modernizing our nation's launch ranges," David Pierce, Wallops Flight Facility director, said in a statement. "We're proud to have made this and future US Rocket Lab Electron launches possible with our game-changing flight safety technology."

"Launch tempos are increasing at all our nation's launch ranges, while ground-based assets required for launch are getting increasingly expensive to maintain," added Pierce. "Many of these issues are mitigated through the benefits of autonomous flight safety systems like NAFTU."

Rocket Lab will also use the Launch Complex 2 site at Wallops for future satellite missions and as a testbed for its larger and more powerful medium-lift rocket, Neutron. ®

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