Rocket Lab ends year by cutting ribbon on first launchpad in the US

Launch opportunities per year now over 130. Actually launched in 2019: 6

Rocket Lab Electron
An Electron launching from New Zealand

Peter Beck, boss of upstart small-sat flinger Rocket Lab, gave himself an early Christmas present this week as he declared the company's second launch complex, this time in the US, operational.

Kind of.

While it has been a mere 10 months since construction began, there are still a good few months to go until an Electron rocket will be scorching the freshly built pad.

Located at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia, Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2 complements the original New Zealand launchpad and gives customers somewhere on US soil to fling their satellites.

The first spacecraft will be another for the US Air Force Space Test Program, in this case STP-27RM, a single research and development micro-sat due for launch during Q2 2020.

Rocket Lab has form when it comes to these missions, having launched STP-27RD back in May on board the amusingly named "That's a Funny Looking Cactus". The 5 May launch was from the company's original Māhia Peninsula Launch Complex 1 and the payload weighed in at 180kg in total.

Never one to shy away from hyperbole, Rocket Lab has laid claim to a capacity for 120 launches a year from its New Zealand launchpad. The company has actually managed just six in 2019, up from four in 2018 (three if you don't count the first, which had to be destroyed due to a telemetry issue). The launcher is capable of lofting a payload of up to 225kg (although 150kg is described as "nominal").

As well as the ability to 3D print an engine in 24 hours, plans are also afoot to recover and reuse the Electron boosters in the coming years with a view to increasing cadence capability.

Ambitions are a tad more modest for the US site, which has been tailored specifically for US government missions. Launch Complex 2 can support up to 12 missions per year. The location appealed due in part to the variety of orbital inclinations available from the site.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is no stranger to launches, having recently hosted Northrop Grumman's NG-12 resupply mission to the International Space Station in November. It also saw Orbital's Antares rocket explode impressively in 2014, damaging Pad 0A.

Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 2 is relatively near the rebuilt Pad 0A. An Integration and Control Facility has been located within the Wallops Research Park for processing payloads and Electron launch vehicles prior to lift-off.

A Rocket Lab spokesperson told The Register that the lengthy gap between the pad becoming "operational" and the first scheduled launch was down to payload and vehicle requirements. "Given this is a new launch pad, we're allowing a little longer than usual to make sure everything is integrated and working in top form together." ®

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