Rocket Lab launches Argos tracking payload

WASHINGTON — A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launched a satellite Oct. 7 carrying a payload for U.S. and French government agencies that will monitor wildlife and collect other sensor data.

The Electron lifted off from Pad B at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 1:09 p.m. east. The two-stage rocket developed an orbital kick nine minutes later. After an extended coast, the kick stage fired Curie’s engine and then deployed its payload, the GAzelle satellite, into a 750-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit about 55 minutes after liftoff.

GAzelle was built by General Atomics as part of a complex set of relationships between many government agencies. The US Space Systems Command has selected General Atomics to host the Argos Advanced Data Collection System payload through the Hosted Payload Services contract vehicle, on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at a cost of $64 million.

The GAzelle spacecraft, weighing about 110 kilograms, houses the Argos-4 instrument, provided by the French space agency CNES, as part of the Argos program involving NOAA, NASA and other national space agencies. Argos payloads on satellites collect and relay data from sensors worldwide, primarily those that monitor wildlife.

The Argos program dates back to the 1970s, with Argos-4 representing the most advanced receivers ever made. Sophie Coutin-Faye, head of the Argos program office at CNES, said at a media briefing on September 27 that Argos-4 covers a wider frequency band and has greater data transmission capacity.

“These improvements and the expanded coverage that upcoming releases will provide will make it easier for current and new users to collect more data, from many more beacons, around the world and with much better data timeliness,” he said.

Argos is most commonly used for wildlife tracking due to its low power requirements. “No other satellite system has the same global coverage, supports very small, low-power transmitters and has transmissions that require less than a second,” said Melinda Holland, chief executive of Wildlife Computers, which provides Argos telemetry instruments for marine studies. animals. in the update.

“This makes Argos the only currently available satellite system suitable for brief viewing of marine animals such as whales, seals and sea turtles, and even non-air-breathing animals such as sharks, sharks and rays,” he added.

Electron and neutron diagrams

The launch was the eighth launch this year for Rocket Lab and the 31st overall for the Electron rocket. The company did not immediately reveal a timetable for its next release.

At an investor day event on Sept. 21, Rocket Lab said it was advancing plans for its first Electron launch from Launch Complex 2 on Wallops Island, Virginia, in December. This launch will carry satellites for HawkEye 360, which operates a constellation of satellites to perform radio frequency tracking.

Rocket Lab had hoped to launch from Virginia in 2020, but was delayed by a lengthy NASA certification process for the rocket’s Autonomous Flight Termination System, or AFTS, required for launches from Wallops. “We have absolute assurances from NASA that AFTS will be completed on time,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said at the investor day event. “After almost two years of delaying this, we are very excited to launch this first vehicle from LC-2 by the end of the year.”

Beck revealed at the event that the company has signed on a second, confidential customer for an Electron launch from LC-2 in January. “Basically, we’ll have one in December, one in January, and that LC-2 launch site will be well and truly up and running,” he said.

Much of the event was devoted to an update on Neutron, the medium-range reusable launch vehicle the company announced in 2021. “We’re building this thing,” Beck said, pointing to the tooling work to produce the tanks for the vehicle. “Real stuff is coming and this is an exciting time.”

While it was originally billed as a vehicle capable of putting up to eight tons into orbit, Beck said it is for the version that returns to the launch site for landing. This yield increases to 13 tons for missions that land on a barge below the launch area, and 15 tons if the vehicle is expended.

Rocket Lab also changed the design of Neutron’s fairing, which opens to release the upper stage and then closes and remains attached to the vehicle. The fairing now opens in two panels instead of four. “We made this change to simply reduce the part count and complexity,” Beck said.

The vehicle now has nine Archimedes engines in its first stage, up from seven in the original design. Those engines, Rocket Lab announced, will be tested at a facility it leases at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Construction is underway at the factory next to the Wallops Flight Facility, where Rocket Lab will assemble neutron rockets, which will be launched from a new pad, Launch Complex 3, at Wallops.

Beck also used the presentation to tease a possible human spaceflight project, showing renderings of a capsule atop a Neutron rocket and docked to the International Space Station. He said the company has not announced plans to develop such a capsule, but did not rule out the possibility of doing so in the future.

“The vehicle is designed to be measured by humans. You don’t design a vehicle like this without that mind,” Beck said of the Neutron. “We don’t have specific programs that focus on capsules, but we’re looking into it.”

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