Sometime in the next two weeks, US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab will attempt something it’s never tried before: a commercial launch of its Electron rocket. It will only be the Electron’s third flight and the first of what the company hopes will be monthly launches by the end of the year. The launch was scrubbed on Friday because of problems with a tracking dish. But check back in tomorrow… and the next day. Every day for the next 14 days, the company will attempt a launch within a four-hour window that starts at 8:30PM ET.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is small for a rocket. At just 55 feet tall, it’s a fraction the height of SpaceX’s 230-foot-tall Falcon 9. But the Electron can afford to be diminutive because it’s built for putting small payloads that weigh between 330 and 500 pounds into low Earth orbit. The launches have a small price tag, too: just $4.9 million a pop.
That’s because Rocket Lab aims to get small satellites into orbit quickly and often. After all, the small satellite business is booming; companies like Planet are sending up dozens of satellites in a single launch to monitor the Earth.
In May 2017, Rocket Lab launched an Electron rocket to space for the first time, but the vehicle didn’t make it to orbit. After analyzing the data from that abbreviated test, the company concluded that a communications glitch on the ground had cut the flight short. A stretch of bad weather delayed the company’s second test flight, dubbed “Still Testing.” But in January 2018, the rocket reached orbit and deployed its payloads: three commercial satellites, and a controversial disco ball called the Humanity Star.
That successful second test showed that the Electron could deliver — setting the stage for the company’s first commercial flight. The mission had originally been planned for April, until Rocket Lab’s engineering team noticed the strange behavior of a key motor. But the company has figured it out and fixed the problem, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told The Verge in May.
Friday marked the start of the 14-day launch window for when the rocket will take off from the company’s private launchpad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The rocket will carry four satellites and a test probe equipped with a sail designed to drag defunct satellites out of orbit.
We’re excited to launch NABEO to orbit on #ItsBusinessTime! Built by HPS GmbH, the NABEO drag sail can be stored in a spacecraft, then deployed once the satellite reaches the end of its orbital life. The sail increases surface area and deorbits the sat faster = less space junk! pic.twitter.com/9W0uaE9W10
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) June 15, 2018
Electron was set to launch on Friday afternoon. But due to chilly temperatures and a problem with a dish meant to track the rocket as it hurtles through the sky, the launch was first delayed, and then scrubbed. Even though the launch window is open for the next two weeks, the weather will get worse over the next few days — so Rocket Lab is still figuring out when the next launch attempt will be. Keep track on Rocket Lab’s Twitter, and check back here for updates. When it’s ready, you can watch Rocket Lab’s live stream, which will start about 20 minutes before launch.
Update June 22nd, 2018 8:46PM ET: Updated to include the new launch time of 10:27PM EST.
Update June 23rd, 2018 12:13AM ET: Launch scrubbed due to tracking dish failure.