Rocket Lab establishes new foothold in the US after years of delay with successful launch

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The company’s Electron rocket lifts off from LC-2 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Jan. 24, 2023.

Brady Kenniston/Rocket Lab

Rocket laboratoryThe company’s first US launch took off Tuesday night, marking a successful mission and a long-awaited expansion of the company’s capabilities.

The company’s Electron rocket launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast and delivered a trio of satellites into orbit for radio-frequency analysis specialist Hawkeye 360.

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“Electron is already the leading small orbital rocket worldwide, and today’s perfect mission from a new pad is testament to our team’s unwavering commitment to mission success,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement Tuesday evening.

The mission was Rocket Lab’s 33rd to date, but the first from American soil. The company has regularly launched from its two private launch pads in New Zealand – with nine successful missions last year.

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Tuesday’s launch also comes after years of delay.

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The company selected Wallops in late 2018 to build a new launch pad, called LC-2, and aimed for a debut launch by the third quarter of 2019. The company completed ground infrastructure work less than a year later and conducted initial testing out with an Electron on the pad in mid-2020, but a new safety software system from NASA held back the inaugural launch attempt, according to Rocket Lab.

Beck previously said NASA’s development of the software “should be completed by the end of 2021.” But certification of the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU), which is used to automatically track a rocket launch and destroy the vehicle if it goes off course, was not completed until last year.

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The software is designed to fill the role traditionally filled by an individual, known as a “range safety officer”, who monitors launch data.

While some rocket-building companies have developed proprietary versions of autonomous flight safety software, NASA heralds its NAFTU system as “revolutionary” as it can be used by “any launch provider on all U.S. launch ranges.” NASA also says NAFTU will help save time and money associated with safely conducting an orbital rocket launch — cost savings that will benefit both the agency and companies.

NASA’s completion of the system fills a “critical gap in the modernization of our nation’s launch ranges,” Wallops director David Pierce said in a statement following Rocket Lab’s launch.

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“We are proud to have made this and future US Rocket Lab Electron launches possible with our breakthrough flight safety technology,” he said.

Rocket Lab previously said it expects to conduct 14 Electron launches in 2023, with anywhere from four to six flying from LC-2 in Wallops. The company plans to report fourth-quarter results after market close on February 28.

Shares of Rocket Lab fell about 2% during early trading Wednesday from its previous close of $4.97 per share. Like other pure-play space stocks, the company’s stock has regained ground this month after a brutal 2022, with shares up about 28% year-to-date.

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