We are in an exciting new era of small satellite technology - one that’s making life on Earth better. We all rely on satellites. They connect us, keep us safe, help us understand our planet and manage our impact on it, and enable us to innovate and explore. The satellites of today are getting smaller, doing more and costing less – and thousands of them need to get on orbit.
Rocket Lab is revolutionizing the small satellite launch industry. Every detail of the Rocket Lab launch system has been designed to provide small satellites with rapid, reliable and repeatable access to space, with environmental sustainability in mind.
Rocket Lab has developed the world’s first fully carbon composite orbital launch vehicle, Electron, which is powered by 3D printed, electric pump fed engines. Rocket Lab can mass produce rockets at an unprecedented rate.
Electron is launched from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1, the world’s only private orbital launch range, which is located in Māhia, New Zealand, and licensed to launch up to 120 times per year. This fast-paced launch frequency enables Rocket Lab to revolutionize space access for small payloads, shattering the traditional restraints of ridesharing on larger vehicles.
With three orbital launches under our belt and 24 satellites put on orbit in our first year of commercial operations, Rocket Lab is determined to be part of the solution for sustainability and the reduction of orbital debris in space. The traditional method of using a launch vehicle’s large second stage to raise or circularize payloads for deployment raises challenges at a high-volume launch cadence. This traditional method can leave large rocket stages in orbit, contributing to the global issue of space junk.
That is why Rocket Lab has created the nimble but powerful extra stage on Electron, named the Kick Stage. The Kick Stage is designed to deliver small satellites to precise orbits, before deorbiting itself to leave no part of the rocket in space.
Here’s how it works. Instead of using the second stage to circularize the orbit, Rocket Lab uses the second stage to take the kick stage to an elliptical orbit, before the kick stage separates and provides a coast phase while carrying the small satellites. Once reaching apogee, the Curie engine ignites. From here, the Curie engine raises the perigee, until the Kick Stage is orbiting the Earth in a circle, rather than an ellipse.
Once in this circular orbit, the kick stage has a special way of deploying multiple satellites. It employs a cold gas reaction control system to precisely point itself and deploy satellites to independent, yet highly precise orbits, and also eliminate the risk of recontact with other spacecraft during deployment. The Curie engine can be reignited multiple times to move to different positions.
After all payloads are deployed, the Kick Stage can reorient itself and reignite the Curie engine one last time to perform a deorbit maneuver. This drastically lowers the Kick Stage’s orbit, enabling it to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up. Rocket Lab designed this system specifically to leave nothing on orbit but customers’ satellites, reducing the amount of staging left to decay on orbit, and protecting access to space for years to come. This system is not a concept, it is real hardware that Rocket Lab is launching to orbit right now.