Don’t stop them now: Rocket Lab launches 5 satellites to orbit

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Rocket Lab’s 12th mission finally got off the ground early this morning (June 13), after a 2.5-month delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A two-stage Electron booster rose off the pad at Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch site at 1:12 a.m. EST (0512 GMT; 5:12 p.m. local New Zealand time), carrying five satellites aloft, including three payloads for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

All five satellites were deployed successfully into their designated orbits, Rocket Lab representatives announced an hour after liftoff.

Related: Rocket Lab and its Electron booster (photos)

The mission, named “Don’t Stop Me Now” after the 1978 Queen song in honor of Rocket Lab board member Scott Smith (who loved the song and died earlier this year), was originally scheduled to launch in late March. But because of shelter-in-place orders implemented to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the company had to hit pause and push the liftoff back considerably.

Rocket Lab then tried to launch the mission early Thursday morning (June 11), but strong winds scuttled that attempt. The weather did not pose a problem today, however.

The three NRO payloads rode to space today via the agency’s Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket program, which “allows the NRO to explore new launch opportunities that provide a streamlined, commercial approach for getting small satellites into space, as well as provide those working in the small satellite community with timely and cost-effective access to space,” Rocket Lab representatives wrote in a mission description.

That’s pretty much all we know about the three little NRO spacecraft. But the lack of information is hardly surprising; the NRO operates the U.S. fleet of spy satellites and tends not to divulge many details about what these spacecraft are up to.

This wasn’t Rocket Lab’s first time working with the NRO. The company’s last mission, which launched in January, lofted the NROL-151 satellite for the U.S. agency.

Also launching on “Don’t Stop Me Now” was a cubesat called ANDESITE (short for “Ad-Hoc Network Demonstration for Extended Satellite-Based Inquiry and Other Team Endeavors”), which was built by students and faculty at Boston University. 

ANDESITE, which launched as part of NASA’s Cubesat Launch Initiative, will study Earth’s magnetic field and space weather. The small satellite will do this using its onboard instruments and eight ultra-tiny “picosatellites” that it will deploy in the near future.

The fifth payload that went up this morning, called M2 Pathfinder, is a joint effort between the University of New South Wales Canberra Space and the Australian government. The satellite “will test communications architecture and other technologies that will assist in informing the future space capabilities of Australia,” Rocket Lab representatives wrote in the mission description.

Rocket Lab aims to greatly increase access to space with its 57-foot-tall (17 meters) Electron, which can deliver about 500 lbs. (227 kilograms) to orbit on each roughly $5 million liftoff. The company plans to eventually make the rocket’s first stage reusable and has made strides in this direction, successfully guiding the booster back to Earth in a controlled fashion on the two previous missions. But no such “recovery testing” work was done on “Don’t Stop Me Now,” Rocket Lab representatives said.

The company has a history of giving fun and playful names to its missions, but there’s a somber note to the moniker “Don’t Stop Me Now.” The name was chosen “in recognition of Rocket Lab board member and avid Queen fan Scott Smith, who recently passed away,” the mission description reads. 

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