Rocket Lab launches Argos tracking payload

WASHINGTON — A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launched a satellite Oct. 7 carrying a payload for U.S. and French government agencies that will track wildlife and collect other sensor data.

The Electron lifted off from Pad B at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 1:09 p.m. Eastern Time. The two-stage rocket deployed a launch stage into orbit nine minutes later. After a long climb, the start-up stage ignited its Curie engine and then deployed its payload, the GAzelle satellite, into a 750-kilometre sun-synchronous orbit about 55 minutes after takeoff.

GAzelle was built by General Atomics as part of a complex set of relationships between multiple government agencies. U.S. Space Force Space Systems Command has selected General Atomics to host the Argos Advanced Data Collection System payload through its Hosted Payload Services contract vehicle, on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at a cost of $64 million. dollars.

The GAzelle probe, weighing around 110 kilograms, hosts the Argos-4 instrument, provided by the French space agency CNES, as part of the Argos program which brings together NOAA, NASA and other space agencies. national. Argos payloads on satellites collect and relay data from sensors around the world, primarily those tracking wildlife.

The Argos program dates back to the 1970s, with Argos-4 representing the most advanced receivers ever flown. Sophie Coutin-Faye, head of the Argos program office at CNES, said in a Sept. 27 press briefing that Argos-4 covers a wider frequency band and has greater data transmission capacity.

“These enhancements and the expanded coverage that future launches will provide will make it easier for current and new users to collect more data, from many more beacons, across the globe and with much better data timeliness,” a- she declared.

Argos is most commonly used for wildlife tracking due to its low power requirements. “No other satellite system has the same global coverage, supports very small, low-power transmitters, and has transmissions that take less than a second,” said Melinda Holland, managing director of Wildlife Computers, which provides Argos telemetry instruments for marine animal studies. at the briefing.

“This makes Argos the only satellite system currently available suitable for briefly surfacing marine animals such as whales, seals and sea turtles, and even non-breathing animals such as billfish, sharks and rays. “, she added.

Electron and Neutron planes

The launch was the eighth this year for Rocket Lab and the 31st launch overall for the Electron rocket. The company did not immediately reveal the timing of its next launch.

At an Investor Day on Sept. 21, Rocket Lab said it was pressing ahead with plans for its first Electron launch from Launch Complex 2 in Wallops Island, Va., in December. This launch will carry satellites for HawkEye 360, which operates a constellation of satellites to perform radio frequency tracking.

Rocket Lab hoped to start launching from Virginia in 2020, but was delayed by a lengthy NASA certification process for the rocket’s Autonomous Flight Termination System, or AFTS, needed for launches from Wallops. “We have absolute assurance from NASA that the AFTS will be completed on time,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said at the Investor Day. “After a nearly two-year delay on this, we are excited to launch this first vehicle on LC-2 by the end of the year.”

Beck revealed at the event that the company had signed a second confidential customer for an Electron launch since LC-2 in January. “Basically, we’ll have one in December, one in January, and this LC-2 launch site will be well and truly launched and operational,” he said.

Much of the event was devoted to an update on Neutron, the mid-range reusable launch vehicle the company announced in 2021. “We’re building this thing,” Beck said, highlighting work on tooling. to produce the vehicle tanks. “There’s real material coming, and it’s an exciting time.”

Although initially billed as a vehicle capable of placing up to eight tons into orbit, Beck said that was for the version that returns to land at the launch site. This performance increases to 13 tons for missions that land on a barge downstream of the launch site, and to 15 tons if the vehicle is exhausted.

Rocket Lab also changed the design of Neutron’s fairing, which opens to release the upper stage then closes and remains attached to the vehicle. The fairing now opens in two panels instead of four. “We made this change to simply reduce the number of parts and complexity,” Beck said.

The vehicle now has nine Archimedes engines in its first stage, up from seven in the original design. Those engines, Rocket Lab announced, will be tested at a facility it rents at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Construction is underway on the factory adjacent to the Wallops Flight Facility where Rocket Lab will assemble Neutron rockets, which will launch from a new pad, Launch Complex 3, at Wallops.

Beck also used the presentation to tease a possible manned spaceflight project, showing renderings of a capsule atop a Neutron rocket and docking with the International Space Station. He said the company was not announcing plans to develop such a capsule, but did not rule out doing so in the future.

“The vehicle is designed to be evaluated by humans. You don’t design a vehicle like this without that spirit,” Beck said of Neutron. “We don’t have any particular capsule-focused programs, but we’re thinking about it.”

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