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Image Credit: Rocket Lab.

Electron launches the Monolith technology demonstration satellite into space

An Electron rocket earlier today, July 29, 2021 at 06:00 UTC / 18:00 NZST (local time), blasted off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 at the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. The three-stage, liquid-fueled, small-lift launch vehicle carried Monolith, a small research and development satellite operated by the U.S. Space Force, into a 600 km low Earth orbit. The mission, designated “It’s A Little Chile Up Here”, was the 21st launch of an Electron rocket and the vehicle’s return to flight after a launch failure in May 2021.

Electron blasts off with the U.S. Space Force's Monolith satellite. Image Credit: Rocket Lab.
Electron blasts off with the U.S. Space Force’s Monolith satellite. Image Credit: Rocket Lab.

Mission profile

At T-2 s, the nine Rutherford engines on Electron’s first stage ignited, lifting the rocket off the pad and toward space. 2 min 36 s later at T+2 min 34 s, the first stage shut down ahead of stage separation and ignition of the second stage just moments later. Once Electron had reached space, the two fairing halves were jettisoned, exposing the Monolith satellite to the vacuum of space. That milestone occurred around three minutes after launch. 6 min 10 s after liftoff, the lauch vehicle jettisoned the spent batteries, which up to this point powered the turbopumps of the single, vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine on Electron’s second stage. For the remaining 2 1/2 minutes of its burn time, the engine utilized a second set of batteries. Electron and its payload entered a preliminary transfer orbit at around 8 min 45 s, shortly followed by the cut off of the second stage and the separation of the Curie kick stage. That small third stage coasted for about 40 minutes, before igniting its engine for ~50 s, inserting the satellite into its final 600 km high operational orbit. Monolith was separated from the kick stage 52 minutes after liftoff, completing Electron’s mission.

The Monolith satellite

The Monolith spacecraft is a technology demonstration satellite operated by the U.S. Space Force and sponsored by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. The primary mission of the small satellite is to test the dynamic properties and ability to maintain attitude control, when a deployed sensor’s mass is a large fraction of the satellite’s total mass. A better understanding of the satellite’s behaviour might enable the usage of smaller satellite buses, thereby reducing the project’s cost and complexity.

Monolith was placed into a 600 km high, 37 degrees inclined low Earth orbit.

The Monolith satellite and the rocket’s kick stage and payload fairing seen after payload integration. Image Credit: Rocket Lab.

The Electron rocket

Electron is a two-stage, liquid-fueled, small-lift launch vehicle developed by Rocket Lab. The launcher is 18 m in length, 1.2 m in diameter and uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and the rocket kerosine RP-1 as propellants in all of its stages. The rocket can be equipped with an additional third stage and is capable of carrying a 300 kg heavy payload into a low Earth orbit. The launch vehicle’s maiden flight occurred on May 25, 2017 and today’s mission was the vehicle’s 21st launch. Unfortunately, the rocket’s first, thirteenth and twentieth launches have failed. So far Electron has only launched from Rocket Lab’s launch site on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, the company however hopes to begin launching rockets from their new second launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island in Virginia, USA soon.

Like another well-known launch provider, Rocket Lab is working on reusing the first stage of Electron. Unlike SpaceX’ Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets however, Electron’s first stage is not capable of a propulsive landing. Instead the company uses parachutes to slow down the stage and a helicopter to catch it mid-air, before it would land in the Pacific Ocean. Rocket Lab has demonstrated the feasibility of this technique during the “Return to Sender” mission in November 2020 and the ill-fated “Running Out of Toes” mission in May 2021. A second flight of a recovered booster has not been performed yet.

Launch of an Electron on January 20, 2021 from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. Image Credit: Rocket Lab.
Launch of an Electron on January 20, 2021 from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. Image Credit: Rocket Lab.

Besides Electron, Rocket Lab is currently working on a second launch vehicle called Neutron. The 40 m tall rocket will be capable of launching 8 tonnes into low Earth orbit and a propulsive landing of its first stage. The maiden flight is scheduled to occur in 2024.


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