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Rocket Lab launches seven small satellites from New Zealand for Seattle’s Spaceflight

Alan Boyle
Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle rises from the company’s launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab executed a picture-perfect first launch for Seattle’s Spaceflight Inc., putting BlackSky’s Global-3 Earth-observing satellite and six other small spacecraft into orbit from its New Zealand launch pad.

The Los Angeles-based launch company nicknamed today’s mission “Make It Rain,” in honor of Spaceflight and its allegedly drizzly home base.

In contrast to the nickname, the weather was crystal-clear and sunny for liftoff at 4:30 p.m. June 29 New Zealand time (9:30 p.m. PT June 28) from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The launch had been delayed twice this week, just to make sure all systems were go, but today’s countdown was trouble-free.

The ascent of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket looked trouble-free as well. After the first two stages did their job, the rocket’s kick stage entered what Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck called a “perfect transfer orbit” in preparation for satellite deployment.

Less than an hour later, Beck said all of the payloads had been deployed. “Perfect flight,” he said in a tweet.

Spaceflight concurred: “Everything looks great,” the company tweeted in reply.

Global-3 is the biggest satellite on the manifest. It’s the third satellite in a constellation that’s being put into orbit for BlackSky — which, like Spaceflight, is a subsidiary of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries. BlackSky focuses on Earth observation and geospatial intelligence, while Spaceflight deals with launch logistics.

Today’s launch represented the first result of a three-rocket rideshare deal that Spaceflight struck with Rocket Lab a year ago.

In addition to Global-3, the payloads included two Prometheus satellites, built by Los Alamos National Laboratory for the U.S. Special Operations Command. The demonstration satellites are about the size of a loaf of bread and are designed to transfer data in a store-and-forward mode as they circle the planet.

Two of Swarm Technologies’ SpaceBEE communication satellites were also on board. Swarm got into trouble last year for deploying cracker-sized satellites in orbit without the required go-ahead from the Federal Communications Commission, but these satellites posed no such problem.

The sixth satellite is ACRUX-1, an experimental spacecraft built by students in Australia’s Melbourne Space Program. The identity of the seventh satellite has not been disclosed.

BlackSky is aiming to add at least five more satellites to its Global constellation by the end of this year, and plans to double its tally to at least 16 by the end of 2020. The Global satellites are being built in Tukwila, Wash., by LeoStella, a joint venture between Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space.

Earlier this month, BlackSky announced a partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office to provide satellite imagery to the defense and intelligence communities. BlackSky is also offering commercial Earth imagery, with a business plan that focuses on providing time-sensitive satellite data at relatively low cost with low latency.

Today marked the third launch of the year for Rocket Lab, and the seventh launch overall. Last year the company reported a $140 million investment round and began work on its second launch complex, located at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island.

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