During the recent Electron rocket launch, which lifted-off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand on August 31, 2020, the space company Rocket Lab has secretly launched its first in-house designed and built Photon satellites into the orbit.
Named ‘First Light,’ the satellite is the first spacecraft from Rocket Lab’s family of configurable Photon satellites to be deployed to orbit. It builds upon the existing capabilities of the Electron launch vehicle’s Kick Stage with additional subsystems to enable long-duration satellite operations.
Approximately 60 minutes after lift-off, Electron deployed a 100 kg microsatellite for Capella Space that signals the successful completion of a standard Rocket Lab mission. Shortly after deploying the customer payload, Rocket Lab engineers sent a command to transition the Kick Stage into Photon satellite mode. This was the first on-orbit demonstration of Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite as a two-in-one spacecraft, first using it to complete its conventional launch vehicle function to deploy customer satellites, then transitioning into a satellite to continue a standalone mission.
“Launching the first Photon mission marks a major turning point for space users – it’s now easier to launch and operate a space mission than it has ever been. When our customers choose a launch-plus-spacecraft mission with Electron and Photon, they immediately eliminate the complexity, risk, and delays associated with having to build their own satellite hardware and procure a separate launch,” said Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, Peter Beck.
With this pathfinding mission, Rocket Lab is building up flight heritage for future Photon satellite missions planned to low Earth orbit, the Moon, and Venus. It hopes to sell them to customers for use in ambitious deep-space missions.
The company’s specialists will continue to monitor the status of the first satellite, and will also prepare new satellites for launch during the next missions. Rocket Lab already has its first satellite launch order from NASA. In 2021, the company will launch Photon with CAPSTONE mission to the Moon for the space agency. The launch will lift off from the Launch Complex 2 in Virginia.