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Electron soars on inaugural test flight, paving way for commercial operations.

Rocket Lab broke through the smallsat launch industry Thursday (May 25) with the first launch of its Electron rocket. Dubbed “It’s a Test” by the U.S.-based company, Electron carried a sensor package in lieu of satellites for this mission, providing engineers with over 25,000 channels of data.

Nine Rutherford engines – made in-house by Rocket Lab – powered the 56-foot rocket off its seaside launch complex on New Zealand’s Mahia peninsula. Launch Complex-1 is the country’s first orbital launch facility. Liftoff occurred at 4:20 UTC, or 12:20am EDT May 25.

Two and a half minutes after liftoff the rocket’s first stage fell away and a single Rutherford engine on the upper stage ignited. The vehicle’s payload fairing jettisoned as the second stage continued its powered climb to orbit.

Although the vehicle did reach space – defined as 62 miles above the Earth’s surface – Rocket Lab indicated after the flight that Electron did not achieve orbital velocity. The company did not go into detail on what the potential issues with the flight were that caused its sensor package to not achieve orbit.

Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-1, located on Mahia Point, New Zealand. Orbital imagery courtesy Digital Globe.

Electron is one of only a handful of rocket’s designed entirely in the 21st century. As such, it features a plethora of unique technologies that make it stand out against other vehicles in the commercial launch market. Each Rutherford engine is 3D printed and is fed by all-electric pumps, earning the nickname “the battery-powered rocket”. The use of composite materials for the entire rocket’s body has never been done before and gives Electron a sleek black appearance.

Electron is the first rocket in a burgeoning class of small launchers to take flight that will cater to the small satellite market. Vector Space Systems recently completed a subscale, single-engine test launch of their Vector-R vehicle, however, full-scale test flights still need to occur.

Rocket Labs hopes to fly two more test flights in the coming months before Electron is declared operational by the end of 2017.

Click here for our preview story on Electron’s flight.

P/c: Rocket Lab

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