Rocket Lab, one of SpaceX’s most successful space startups, launched its Electron rocket for the first time Tuesday night from NASA’s Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.
The Electron rocket was launched from a refurbished launch pad at about 6 p.m. and was visible from the DC metropolitan area. The California-based company has previously launched rockets from its New Zealand facility, but hopes to fly more frequently from the United States.
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The Wallops facility is located near Chincoteague and has been around for decades. In addition to Rocket Lab, it is home to Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket, which performs cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station.
A few years ago, Rocket Lab moved in, adding a commercial company to what Virginia hopes will become a thriving list of space companies operating at the site. The company looked at other locations in the United States, including Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, but ultimately chose Wallops in part because of its ability to expand operations there.
“KSC is an amazing series, but I think everyone has to agree, it’s pretty busy,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s chief executive, said on a call with reporters last year. “Whereas we can hit almost the same trajectories from Virginia here. The range isn’t as busy and there’s a lot of room to grow.”
With its small size, just under 60 feet tall, the Electron is designed to carry small satellites in a short amount of time. This is a capability of particular interest to the Pentagon and the US intelligence community. It’s another reason Rocket Lab chose Wallops. it’s only a little more than a three-hour drive from Washington.
Tuesday’s release has been delayed since December. The rocket carried three satellites built by HawkEye 360, a company based in Herndon, Va. which operates satellites capable of detecting radio frequencies. A little more than an hour after launch, the company said the satellites had been successfully deployed.
In addition to the Electron launch, the company plans to launch the much larger Neutron rocket from Wallops. This rocket is meant to be reusable – after being launched into space it would turn around and fly back to its launch point. Beck said the company will attempt to land the Neutron on its first flight, which is scheduled for sometime in 2024.
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