Rocket Lab is the latest entry to commercial spaceflight, blasting off from New Zealand over the weekend. But along with their rocket and payload of imaging and remote sensing instruments, the company revealed that they had a couple of tricks up their sleeve, including the launch of a glittery sculpture and testing of hardware for directing payloads into different orbits.
Rocket Lab’s launch of their Electron rocket on January 21 made New Zealand just the eleventh country to deliver a payload into orbit, David Szondy writes for New Atlas. It was also the first commercial launch from the Southern Hemisphere, making Rocket Lab the latest non-government platform for delivering payloads into orbit.
The Electron rocket is smaller than SpaceX’s famous Falcon 9 and, as Loren Grush reports for The Verge, held a trio of small satellites: Planet Lab's Earth-imaging Dove satellite and two weather and ship-tracking Lemur satellites for Spire. But as Grush reported yesterday, after the launch, the company revealed that the rocket also carried an art sculpture called “the Humanity Star.” This faceted carbon fiber sphere rapidly spins in space, reflecting the sun's light so brightly that people on Earth will be able spot the orb with the naked eye.
"No matter where you are in the world, rich or in poverty, in conflict or at peace, everyone will be able to see the bright, blinking Humanity Star orbiting Earth in the night sky," company founder Peter Beck writes on the project's website. "My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important." The Humanity Star website also provides maps to help those interested locate the star in the night sky as it spins around our planet. Although some are complaining the sculpture is yet more space junk, it's on a decaying orbit that will only last about nine months before it burns up in the Earth's atmosphere.
Although Beck resists comparing the sculpture to a disco ball, Nick Perry reports for Associated Press, he concedes the similarity saying “in all honesty, yes, it’s a giant mirror ball.” It is also the perfect test for its intended market share of delivering small payloads into near-Earth orbit.
“The Electron is, effectively, a boutique launch system,” science fiction author Andy Weir writes on Facebook. While a company like SpaceX are more cost-effective than Rocket Lab plans to be in the future, the New Zealand company will be able to provide individual launches where clients have complete control of launch parameters instead of carpooling into orbit with a primary payload that dictates when and where the rocket will go. Rocket Lab plans to primarily deliver payloads to Sun-synchronous orbits, which means the satellite will pass over the same parts of the Earth at the same time each day. This consistency can be a plus for imaging satellites, notes Calla Cofield at Space.com, providing similar lighting for each of the images the craft takes.
The company also recently revealed they had tested a features that help the rocket precisely place payloads in their exactly desired orbits, including tests of a kick stage to help circularize payload orbits, and multiple burns so that the Electron rocket can deliver payloads into multiple orbits. These features will further cements Rocket Labs as the company for personalized launches of small payloads.
“SpaceX is like a moving company, and Rocket Lab is like FedEx,” Weir writes. “It would cost you a lot to FedEx all your belongings across the country. And it would be stupid to hire a moving company to move a single book across the country. The market has need for both.”
This was just the second test flight for Rocket Lab, whose first test flight in May failed when ground communication systems briefly lost contact with the rocket, Grush writes. After multiple delays during the original test window in December, the rocket reached orbit and successfully deployed its payloads during the second test flight on Sunday.
The company sparked laughter and memes when during final countdown, a controller acknowledged his frustration over the testing delays by admitting, “I never want to hold again” when asked if he wanted any final check-points prior to launch. It's also provoked amusement with its rocket names. The rocket from the failed launch in May bore the name "It's a Test," while the rocket from this month's successful test was named "Still Testing."
As Grush reports, it’s not yet clear when the next flight will be, nor how many test flights Rocket Lab will make. But Humanity's Star will be spinning around Earth for most of this year, a glittery inspiration to head outside on a dark night and look up.