Rocket Lab just launched its first spacecraft, transforming a leftover piece of its rocket into a satellite that can carry missions to the moon or Venus

Trevor Mahlmann/Rocket LabOne of Rocket Lab’s carbon-fibre Electron launch vehicles lifts off from New Zealand.
  • Rocket Lab just launched its first Photon satellite: a spacecraft designed for missions to the moon, Venus, or Mars.
  • This spacecraft, called “First Light,” is just a demo, but NASA has already contracted Rocket Lab to fly the agency’s robotic moon mission in 2021.
  • CEO Peter Beck says that, together, the Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft can cut out the most difficult parts of sending satellite missions to other planets.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Rocket Lab — a private rocket company — quietly launched its own satellite for the first time this week.

Rocket Lab has been launching other firms’ satellites aboard its Electron rocket since 2018, but it has never put its own spacecraft into Earth’s orbit before.

But the spacecraft it launched this week, the first demo of its own Photon satellite, is designed to carry other companies’ and government agencies’ technology into space. Eventually, it could carry missions to the moon, Venus, and Mars.

Monday’s launch at first appeared routine, like the 13 missions Rocket Lab previously launched. The company’s Electron rocket lifted off from its New Zealand launch complex on Monday, shedding its unneeded sections as it roared through the atmosphere. About an hour later, the remaining section of the rocket, called the kick stage, made a final push into an orbit high above Earth and deployed a microsatellite for the company Capella Space — a Rocket Lab customer.

But then something totally new happened: Instead of firing its boosters to push itself back into Earth’s atmosphere, where it would disintegrate, the kick stage settled into its own orbit and entered satellite mode.

“There was a real magical moment, sitting with the engineers, where we sent a command to the kick stage … a command that turned the kick stage into our very first satellite,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a video announcement on Thursday.

The company hopes that Photon will extend its launch service to include a spaceflight service — taking its customers’ satellite missions not only past Earth’s atmosphere but beyond to other planets. All the customer has to do is make its hardware fit onboard Photon.

If successful, the project could make Rocket Lab an end-to-end satellite flight company. That would give it a unique role in the new commercial era of space, where private companies launch, fly, and land spacecraft for government agencies like NASA.

With the help of companies like Rocket Lab, NASA plans to eventually establish a permanent moon base, and then potentially spring-board missions from there to Mars.

Future Photons could travel to other planets — and one is booked for the moon

Rocket lab Photon satellite First Light launchRocket LabA photo from Rocket Lab’s first Photon Satellite, ‘First Light,’ in Earth’s orbit.

Rocket Lab shared its plan to create the new satellite, called Photon, last year. The disk-shaped, single-motor spacecraft is designed to carry missions for other companies to the moon, Venus, and even Mars — it’s equipped with solar cells and navigation hardware.

This was its first launch.

Rocket Lab dubbed the new spacecraft “First Light.” Beck told reporters that it would remain in orbit for the next five to six years.

“This first Photon mission is really focused as a technology demonstrator, to prove out all the systems and the operations — everything we need to take us to the moon and Venus and beyond,” Beck said. “It also provides an opportunity for our customers who are interested in Photon to actually take a look at what we’ve built.”

Rocket LabRocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft (right) is designed to ride atop an Electron rocket’s second stage (left) and fly missions to high orbits and even the moon.

Once the service is up and running, customers should be able to buy a ready-made Photon spacecraft, load it up with the instruments for their mission, and pay Rocket Lab to launch it into space.

From there, the satellite can set itself on a path that takes it as far as the moon or Venus, or even Mars.

“Launching the first Photon mission marks a major turning point for space users — it’s now easier to launch and operate a space mission than it has ever been,” Beck said in a statement. “When our customers choose a launch-plus-spacecraft mission with Electron and Photon, they immediately eliminate the complexity, risk, and delays associated with having to build their own satellite hardware and procure a separate launch.”

NASA already plans to use the 55-pound, $US13.7 million Photon spacecraft to fly a robotic moon mission called CAPSTONE (short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment”). In February, NASA awarded Rocket Lab a $US9.95 million contract. The mission is supposed to launch in 2021 and spend a few months winding its way into lunar orbit as a demonstration — part of NASA’s Artemis moon-landing program.

Rocket Lab announced on Thursday that it has opened a new manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California “to accommodate streamlined, rapid production of Photons.”

Photon spacecraft capstone nasa moon illustration rocket lab rocketlab 00002Rocket LabAn illustration of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft carrying NASA’s CAPSTONE mission. The $US23.6 effort is slated to launch in 2021.

“It’s such a powerful platform for people to experiment with and then utilise at its full force,” Beck previously told Business Insider. “You don’t need to build a launcher. You don’t need to build a spacecraft. In fact, you don’t even need to develop your sensor — you can just give us a spec [specification] and we’ll do the whole thing. It’s a very different approach to the current state-of-the-art.”

Dave Mosher contributed reporting.

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