Rocket Lab, a small satellite launch company, said it had successfully launched one of its own satellites, suggesting that the spacecraft’s design was feasible in Earth orbit,media The Verge reported. It was the company’s first flight of its homemade cylindrical spacecraft, the Photon, which Rocket Lab hopes to sell to customers for ambitious deep space missions.
The satellite is a secret part of Rocket Lab’s latest launch. On August 30, the company’s Electron rocket took off from Rocket Lab’s main launch site in New Zealand and took off with a Capella Space satellite. But when the satellite separated from the rocket, part of electron actually became a satellite and remained in orbit around the Earth. The satellite is Electron’s Kick Stage, a small platform on top of the rocket that helps give extra power to satellites on the craft in space. After the satellite was deployed, Rocket Lab sent a command to start running like a satellite.
“For me personally, there was a really magical moment to sit down with the engineers, where we gave the order to the kick stage,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a live broadcast announcing the satellite launch. The company has since called the satellite “First Light.”
Rocket Lab announced last year that it plans to build its own satellite, using its Electron kick stage design. The idea behind these Photon satellites is that they can be cost-effectively customized to help Rocket Lab customers get into orbit — without having to design their own satellites in the process. “We really want to lower the bar here and get innovation and your ideas on track quickly,” Beck said. “
Rocket Lab has big ambitions for spacecraft, having previously crafted a deal with NASA to put a small spacecraft called CAPSTONE into orbit around the moon. The company even came up with the idea of sending the Photon spacecraft to Venus in 2023. Prices vary depending on the destination, Beck says. NASA’s mission to the moon, for example, is about $10 million.
Beck said the in-flight demonstration enabled Rocket Lab to test all systems of the Photon satellite — including those that could be useful for future deep space missions. It also gives potential customers the opportunity to see how the satellite is functioning. The satellite is equipped with a camera that captures images of the satellite itself and the Earth below. Rocket Lab plans to do more demonstration flights with Photon, iterating on each launch.
Rocket Lab’s launch of the satellite without publicly telling anyone may have made some people uncomfortable, as this is not the first time the company has secretly launched a satellite. In January 2018, Rocket Lab secretly launched its own Humanity Star satellite as a somewhat artistic project. The satellite is designed to reflect light from the sun and sparkle in the night sky. Rocket Lab hopes it will inspire people to look up at the object and think about its place in the universe. However, the stunt infuriated many astronomers, who feared that the shiny satellite could become a source of light pollution, destroying their long-exposure images of the universe. The Humanity Star satellite didn’t last long, crashing into the Earth’s atmosphere three months after launch.
Asked why the company didn’t announce the Photon demo before launch, Beck said he wanted to make sure they executed and delivered the product first. “Well, I kind of like just doing something and making sure it’s all right, it’s working, and then announcing it,” Beck said at a news conference. He also said he hoped “the product would be less controversial than humanity Star”.