Rocket Lab set to kickoff 2024 with “Four of a Kind” satellite mission


Rocket Lab set to kickoff 2024 with “Four of a Kind” satellite mission

Rocket Lab is preparing for its first launch of 2024, with its Electron launch vehicle poised to launch four Space Situational Awareness (SSA) satellites into low-Earth orbit from the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand. Named “Four of a Kind,” Electron is scheduled to lift off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-1B in Māhia at no earlier than 7:15 PM NZDT on Jan. 31 (06:15 UTC).

The launch window will remain open for 45 minutes, until 8:00 PM NZDT (07:00 UTC), with backup launch opportunities being available in the case of a launch scrub. Launch was initially planned for 7:15 PM NZDT on Jan. 17 but was scrubbed early on launch day to provide ample time to complete pre-launch procedures, according to Rocket Lab. The company then prepared to launch on Jan. 28 but stood down due to unfavorable weather.

In addition to delivering the four SSA satellites, Rocket Lab will attempt a maritime recovery of Electron’s first stage, marking the first attempted booster recovery from Rocket Lab since the “We Love The Nightlife” mission in August of last year.

Electron’s payload

The mission payload will consist of four Low Earth Multi-Role Receiver (LEMUR) cubesats that will be placed into orbit on behalf of Rocket Lab’s customer, Spire Global Inc., who built the spacecraft and will operate them for their own customer, NorthStar Earth and Space. The four spacecraft, measuring 3U (10x10x34.5 centimeters) and weighing less than 6 kilograms each, are built by Spire to provide space-based weather monitoring, as well as tracking for maritime and aviation activity.

The LEMUR cubesat. (Credit: Spire)

While LEMUR satellites are built mainly for monitoring Earth-based activity, NorthStar intends to build a constellation of LEMUR spacecraft dedicated to tracking other space-based activity from space.

The satellites will monitor all near-Earth orbits in order to provide an enhanced level of situational awareness to the global satellite community. According to Spire, the LEMUR spacecraft operated on behalf of NorthStar will provide “timely and precise information for space object detection, tracking, orbit determination, collision avoidance, navigation, and proximity alerts.”

NorthStar’s constellation is scheduled to eventually consist of 12 satellites, with eight more set to launch in blocks of four via two Electron launches later this year.

Electron’s launch

Final preparations for launch began on Jan. 15, when Rocket Lab integrated the four-spacecraft payload with Electron, followed by a successful dress rehearsal ahead of the originally scheduled launch the next day.

The countdown will officially begin at T-7 hours, with the formal countdown initialization. The launch vehicle will then be raised into a vertical position at T-4 hours, followed shortly afterward by the loading of propellant, where the Electron’s fuel tanks will be primed for launch with RP-1 rocket propellant. Two hours later, Electron will be loaded with liquid oxygen, providing oxidization to Electron’s engines and allowing for the combustion that will propel the rocket and its payload into space.

At T-15 minutes, the launch team will assess the weather conditions and Electron’s readiness to fly with a go/no-go poll. If Electron is cleared for flight, the final major milestone ahead of ignition will be at T-2 minutes, when the launch auto-sequence begins.

Ignition occurs at T-2 seconds, with Electron’s nine Rutherford first stage engines providing 190 kilonewtons of thrust to the rocket. After T0, the nine first stage engines will continue to burn for two minutes and 25 seconds, after which main engine cut-off is scheduled to occur.

Seconds later, Electron’s second and first stages will separate, followed by the ignition of the second stage’s single vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine at T+2 minutes and 31 seconds.

The first stage is then set to make its parachute-assisted return to Earth, with splashdown predicted to occur somewhere around T+18 minutes. If successful, the first stage will be recovered via ship and taken to Rocket Lab’s production facility in Auckland, New Zealand. There, it will be assessed for damage and possible refurbishment as Rocket Lab works towards its goal of first-stage reuse.

Graphic showing the mission timeline for Four of a Kind. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

While the first stage continues its descent towards Earth, Electron’s second stage will continue burning until T+9 minutes and 20 seconds, following which Electron’s kick stage, powered by a single Curie engine, will separate and begin the final stage of the flight.

The kickstage will place the payload onto its intended 560-kilometer circular orbit, inclined at 97 degrees, followed by payload separation at approximately T+1 hour and 17 minutes, bringing the mission to an end and Rocket Lab’s 2024 to a start.

(Lead image: A reusable Electron first stage, denoted by its red interstage, being prepared for launch. Credit: Rocket Lab)

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