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Rocket Lab launches Astro Digital satellite

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launched a single cubesat for Astro Digital Oct. 16, placing the satellite into a much higher orbit than previous Electron launches.

The Electron lifted off from Rocket Lab’s launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 9:22 p.m. Eastern, a launch delayed two days by poor weather at the launch site, and then pushed back nearly halfway into the three-hour window by gusty upper-level winds.

The single satellite on the rocket separated from the rocket’s Curie kick stage 71 minutes after liftoff, going into a polar orbit at an altitude of more than 1,000 kilometers. That altitude is more than twice as high as previous Electron launches.

Rocket Lab said the launch took advantage of upgrades to that Curie kick stage, including a switch to a bipropellant engine for higher performance. That kick stage is also the bus for its Photon smallsat service that the company announced earlier this year.

That satellite, Palisade, is a 16U cubesat built by Astro Digital that is intended to demonstrate a satellite platform known as Corvus. The California company, originally focused on developing its own satellites for Earth imaging applications, is now offering broader smallsat manufacturing and mission design services. Palisade will test satellite propulsion and “next-generation” communications systems, as well as third-party flight control software.

Rocket Lab adjusted its launch schedule to accommodate the Astro Digital spacecraft. Rocket Lab said that it launched Palisade on this mission after another, unidentified customer originally slated for this rocket requested a delay.

The company is touting that schedule flexibility, and ability to fly to specific orbits like the one Palisade was deployed in, as the benefits of dedicated launch. Rocket Lab and other small launch vehicle developers are facing new competition from larger launch vehicle providers offering enhanced rideshare services, such as SpaceX’s smallsat rideshare initiative announced in August.

“No longer do small satellite operators have to accept the limitations of flying as a secondary payload, nor do they have to wait endlessly on the manifest of unproven launch vehicles,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a post-launch statement. “Frequent, responsive, and reliable launch is the new norm for small satellites thanks to Electron.”

The launch was the ninth Electron mission to date and the fifth this year as Rocket Lab pushes to increase the frequency of launches. The company said its next launch, for an undisclosed customer, is scheduled for late November.

This launch was also the first under a new “launch operator” license issued by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses launches for American companies regardless of launch location. The five-year license, dated Oct. 9, allows Rocket Lab to carry out a series of missions without the need to obtain a separate launch license for each one, provided the launch fits within parameters outlined in the license such as launch site and azimuth.

That new license offers a “streamlined path to orbit for our customers,” the company said in an Oct. 10 statement. “Efficient licensing supports frequent launch opportunities and truly responsive space access, and we’re thrilled to be delivering this for small sats.”