Rocket Lab goes hypersonic, modifies Electron for suborbital launches

The private space firm has modified its flagship Electron rocket to provide "cost-effective hypersonic" capabilities.
Chris Young
Rocket Lab's Electron at launch.
Rocket Lab's Electron at launch.

Rocket Lab / Twitter 

Rocket Lab, the company plucking rocket boosters out of the sky with helicopters, is adding hypersonic suborbital launches to its arsenal.

The New Zealand and US-based private space firm announced in a press statement that the new service will be available at some point in the first half of this year.

It will utilize a modified version of its flagship Electron rocket to provide the service via its National Security subsidiary.

Rocket Lab goes hypersonic

In a statement, Rocket Lab said that it will fly its first hypersonic suborbital launch mission for a "confidential customer" this year.

Rocket Lab's suborbital vehicle is a variation on its orbital rocket, Electron. The space firm has dubbed the model the hypersonic accelerator suborbital test electron, or HASTE, and the first of these is already undergoing launch preparations at Rocket Lab's new U.S. launch facility in Wallops Island, Virginia.

"Rocket Lab has a strong track record of delivering tailored and reliable space capabilities for the civil space and national security communities across launch and space systems and HASTE is an extension of this," Brian Rogers, senior director of Global Launch Services at Rocket Lab explained in the statement.

"Hypersonic and suborbital test capabilities are key priorities for the nation, yet the DoD's ability to test these systems has been limited," Rogers continued. "With HASTE, we've taken a proven vehicle in Electron and tailored it specifically to deliver highly capable, frequent, and cost-effective hypersonic and suborbital test opportunities from our existing launch site in Virginia."

In a tweet, Rocket Lab pointed out that HASTE will use the same 3D-printed Rutherford engines as Electron, but it will have a modified Kick Stage for hypersonic payload deployment. It will also have a larger payload capacity of up to 1,540 lbs (700 kg).

Rocket Lab aims to compete with SpaceX

Rocket Lab has already secured three customers, including a U.S. Department of Defense contract to provide hypersonic test launch services, via Dynetics. Numerous classified payloads will likely be tested aboard HASTE, with the missions falling under Rocket Lab's National Security subsidiary.

Hypersonic test capabilities are crucial for the US's national security interests. Several other firms, including Stratolaunch and Blue Origin, are also aiming to offer services in this space.

Rocket Lab's flagship Electron launch vehicle has been flying since 2018, and it has successfully deployed several high-profile missions, including a lunar satellite called CAPSTONE for NASA.

The company also aims to launch its reusable next-gen Neutron rocket next year, with a view to competing with SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches. It also hopes to become the first private space firm to send a spacecraft to another planet with its self-funded Venus mission.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board