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Rocket Lab expands business into building satellites after secretly launching its Photon spacecraft

Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite in orbit around the Earth.

Rocket Lab

Small rocket builder Rocket Lab is expanding its business into building spacecraft that pair with its rockets, with the company’s most recent launch quietly featuring its first ever Photon satellite.

“We’re trying to fundamentally shift what it means to be able to do things in orbit and actually build businesses in orbit,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a webcast on Thursday.

Beck explained that the company’s 14th launch on Monday succeeded as planned, with its Electron rocket putting an 100 kilogram Capella Space imaging satellite in orbit. But, while Rocket Lab concluded the livestream of the launch as expected, Beck revealed that the mission hadn’t ended then. Rocket Lab issued a command that turned the Electron’s “kick stage,” a small upper piece of the rocket that places the satellites in orbit, “into our very first satellite,” Beck said.

Rocket Lab named the satellite “First Light,” as it is the first of the company’s “configurable” Photon spacecraft. The company in April 2019 announced plans to develop the Photon line of spacecraft, with the goal of having a new platform for companies and organizations to use to test and operate technologies in space. Previously, anyone looking to launch a sensor – such as for imagery or analytics – would also build or order the spacecraft hardware that would house and power the technology. But Rocket Lab’s Photon platform gives a new option that helps reduce the cost and risk involved in building a spacecraft.

“[Photon is] a full end-to-end solution, where customers can just come to us with their idea or their innovation, and we can get them on orbit in a really affordable timeframe and really affordable cost,” Beck said. “What we’re trying to do here is reduce the time and the effort being spent on having to build a team of experts or build your own satellites.”

Rocket Lab’s “Photon” satellite platform, on the right, is shown at the company’s factory alongside an upper stage of the Electron rocket.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is priced at about $7 million per launch and is capable of lifting as much as 300 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit. With 13 missions completed, and just one failure in July, Beck said that Rocket Lab’s success in the launch business means “access to space really isn’t the problem any more.” The company in May acquired satellite hardware manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary, part of Rocket Lab’s investing “really heavily” in building its Space Systems division, Beck said. The company declined to quantify how much it has or plans to further invest in the Photon platform, but its newly expanded headquarters in Long Beach, California has facilities for everything from building Electron’s rocket engines to integrating satellites with Photon.

The First Light satellite is “a technology demonstrator” for the Photon platform but Beck said it proves “out all the systems and operations and everything we need to take us to the moon and Venus and beyond.” Rocket Lab has several more launches set to take place this year and 26 missions booked for 2021, including using Electron and Photon to send a small NASA satellite to the moon’s orbit early next year.  

“This is the future,” Rocket Lab’s chief engineer of space systems Ehson Mosleh said on the webcast.

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