WASHINGTON — The successful launch of a NASA moon cube mission was the culmination of two and a half years of work at Rocket Lab that, the company’s chief executive says, could enable “ridiculously cheap” planetary missions.
Rocket Lab’s Electron launched NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) and the company’s Lunar Photon kick-stage on June 28. orbit of the moon.
The payload, with a total mass of more than 300 kilograms, pushed the Electron to its limits. “Electron gave everything it could. We’ve never run the engines as hard as tonight,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, in an interview a few hours after the launch, which took place in New Zealand that evening. “We put the Lunar Photon right where it needed to be and we still had some performance left in the vehicle.”
The high energy Lunar Photon kick stage was a major effort for Rocket Lab. Beck said one challenge was the high performance required for the stage’s HyperCurie engine, with a specific impulse of 310 seconds. “That’s really hard to do in a small engine, and the mass margins were so tight,” he said.
“This was just next level difficult,” Beck said of the overall mission. “It’s two and a half years of tremendous effort from the team.”
The payout, he said, is a system that can be used for other small-sat missions with high performance requirements. Rocket Lab is already planning to use the same kick-stage for a privately funded mission to Venus, replacing the CAPSTONE cubes with an atmospheric input probe.
“We might as well go to Mars and to asteroids,” he said. “This is really a whole new system for deep space exploration at a ridiculously low cost.”
In the short term, Rocket Lab will return to more typical Electron launches. The launch of CAPSTONE was the fourth Electron mission of the year, and while neither Beck nor Rocket Lab announced when the next launch would take place, Beck said the company was preparing for a series of launches in the near future.
“We’ve got a backup of vehicles to launch and we’ve had a good run of customer readiness with their payloads, so once this mission is over, we’ll get the next one on the road,” Beck said.
He said the company’s launch speed is determined by when customers, not launch vehicles, are ready to fly. “The customer really determines our launch pace, not our readiness,” he said. “What it does mean is it’s going to be a pretty lumpy manifesto where if a customer slips, we’re trying to get ahead of another customer. We’re always playing manifest whack-a-mole to make sure we keep the flow.”
Beck also said Rocket Lab will try again relatively soon to recover an electron booster in the sky. A helicopter briefly captured the booster during a launch on May 2, but had to release it due to unexpected load characteristics on the helicopter.
“We haven’t made any changes to the vehicle or to the recovery systems,” he said. “It just comes down to getting the technology right and just the mission operations that come with it.”
“That team has been working around the clock,” Beck said of recovery efforts, “and you won’t have long to wait for the next recovery mission.”