NorthStar Satellites Are Launched By Electron In A Recent Recovery Test

In a further test of the company’s plans to recover and eventually reuse Electron boosters, Rocket Lab launched the first four satellites for space situational awareness (SSA) startup NorthStar Earth and Space on January 31.

Launched on a mission the company named “Four of a Kind,” the Electron took off at 1:34 a.m. Eastern from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. It launched four satellites carrying its payload for NorthStar Earth and Space into a 530 km sun-synchronous orbit.

Spire constructed the 16U cubesats for NorthStar, and Exolaunch handled mission integration for the spacecraft. They have sensors installed that let them to track objects as small as 40 centimetres across in geostationary orbit and as little as five centimetres across in low Earth orbit.

By 2026, eight more satellites will have been launched on two more Electron missions. The current constellation of four spacecraft consists of the first four of twelve planned. Options for up to eighteen more spacecraft are included in NorthStar’s deal with Spire.

When the 12 satellites are in operation, according to NorthStar, which raised $15 million in December and $105 million altogether, they will be able to monitor 60% of the sky at any given moment, and that percentage will rise to 100% when paired with additional sensors. Stewart Bain, the CEO of NorthStar, stated in a statement released on January 8 that the company “has patiently invested in the realisation of an unprecedented turnkey SSA service designed to outperform the challenges of space congestion and security in space that are mounting exponentially every day.”

Launch delays tried that patience. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system was supposed to carry the four satellites into orbit last year, but the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2023 and was subsequently dissolved. After that, NorthStar and Rocket Lab inked a deal for a fall 2023 launch, but it was postponed after an Electron launch in September went awry.

Rocket Lab’s “Four of a Kind” launch marked the company’s first of the year. It was supposed to happen in the middle of January, but bad weather and extra pre-launch checkouts caused delays. During a November earnings call, the business said that it has 22 Electron launches planned for 2024, two of which would be of the suborbital variant of the programme called HASTE. In 2023, Rocket Lab launched ten electrons.

During the launch, Rocket Lab also tested its capability to retrieve electron boosters. Seventeen minutes after liftoff, the rocket for this flight splashed down while descending under a parachute. Shortly after splashdown, a rescue ship showed up to retrieve the booster and bring it back to port.

Having already launched a rocket with a previously flown Rutherford engine in August 2023, the business intends to eventually reuse the boosters. Reusing an engine is the last stage before reusing a booster completely, according to company executives at the time.

In a statement, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said, “The success of today’s mission to deliver Spire and NorthStar to orbit, and the completion of our secondary mission to return Electron to Earth after launch, has been a fantastic start of what is set to be Rocket Lab’s busiest year ever.”

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