Rocket Lab Unveils First Operational Photon Smallsat

Photon First Light
Credit: Rocket Lab

CAPE CANAVERAL—The Electron rocket’s kick stage that dispatched a small satellite into orbit for customer Capella Space on Aug. 31 has become a free-flying demonstration of Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite platform, the company disclosed on Sept. 3.

The satellite, known as “First Light,” is the first of a series of Photon spacecraft that build on the Electron small satellite launcher, expanding the array of services from the privately owned, Long Beach, California-based company.

Rocket Lab’s 14th Electron rocket, carrying Capella’s 220-lb. synthetic aperture radar Earth-observing satellite, lifted off from the company’s New Zealand launch site at 3:05 p.m. Aug. 31 local time (11:05 p.m. EDT Aug. 30), marking the company’s successful return to flight following an accident on July 4. 

After deploying Capella’s Sequoia spacecraft into a 310 mi-high orbit, the kick stage transformed into a Photon satellite, CEO Peter Beck said during a Sept 3 presentation on YouTube.

“This action marked the first on-orbit demonstration of Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite as a two-in-one spacecraft, first using it to complete its conventional launch vehicle function to deploy customer satellites, then transitioning into a satellite to continue a stand-alone mission,” Rocket Lab said in a statement.

First Light is intended to serve as a pathfinder for future, higher energy missions beyond Earth orbit.

“This pathfinding mission is an initial demonstration of the new power management, thermal control and attitude control subsystem capabilities,” Rocket Lab said.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.