Rocket Lab's Electron rocket lifting off. Credits: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab Delivered NASA’s First Satellite Swarm

On July 18, Rocket Lab successfully launched the "Baby Come Back" Rideshare mission, on board 7 payloads including NASA's Starling swarm demonstration mission

Last night at 01:27 UTC, Rocket Lab “Baby Come Back” Rideshare mission lifted off from Launch Complex 1 at Mahia, New Zealand. The Electron rocket carried and successfully deployed seven payloads, from different customers, in a sun-synchronous orbit.

Two and half minutes after liftoff the second stage separated from the booster, which softly splashed down approximately 15 minutes later in the ocean. Nine minutes after liftoff the Kick Stage separated, it ignited on and off three times its Curie engine until the full release of all payloads in about an hour and a half.

The rideshare included four CubeSats for NASA’s Starling mission, Telesat’s LEO 3 satellite and two 3U for SPIRE Global.


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NASA’s Starling mission

Since the beginning of space exploration, the majority of spacecraft communication and control have relied on ground-based operations. However, temporary communication issues and delays resulting from vast distances are a major obstacle to the development of increasingly complex missions.

NASA’s Starling mission has a primary objective of showcasing the potential of satellite swarms, wherein a group of CubeSats can operate together autonomously, minimizing or eliminating the need for ground-based assistance. Starling will be tested in Low Earth Orbit but it’s a first step in developing new technologies that could allow for autonomous swarms of spacecraft further away from our planet. For example, the identification of lunar resources to support long-term human missions or telescopes mounted in multiple small spacecraft, creating larger fields of view. Groups of independent satellites are also more resilient against failure and malfunction, if one fails you don’t have to renounce the whole mission. In addition, costs would be significantly reduced.

Impression of NASA's Starling satellites in orbit. Credits: NASA
Impression of NASA’s Starling satellites in orbit. Credits: NASA

The four 6U CubeSats will fly 571 km (355 miles) above Earth and 65 km (40 miles) apart, in a Sun-synchronous orbit that will allow the satellites’ dual solar panels to consistently receive an equal amount of sunlight, ensuring a continuous generation of energy. In the first phase, the spacecraft will fly in line, then they will move in different stable relative orbits (passive safety ellipses).


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Demonstration of keys technologies

Payload integration of NASA'S Starling satellites. Credits: Rocket Lab
Payload integration of NASA’s Starling satellites. Credits: Rocket Lab

Through the six-month mission, NASA aims to demonstrate four key technologies that facilitate coordinated and self-sufficient operations in space:

  • Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard (ROMEO). This flight control software will demonstrate the swarm’s ability to autonomously control orbital maintenance maneuvers. Initially, the CubeSats will be controlled from the ground, then ROMEO will take control of the cluster.
  •  Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET). The satellites will communicate with each other thanks to a two-way S-band crosslink, using a protocol for reliable space communications across any node within the swarm. If one of the connection nodes fails, MANET will have to find an alternative communications route to maintain a stable network over time.
  • Starling Formation-Flying Optical Experiment (StarFOX). The CubeSats will use star-tracker sensors to determine their position in space. On board each spacecraft StarFOX will use the orientation data to map the location of the other three satellites and carry out continuous checks of positions within the swarm.
  • Distribute Spacecraft Autonomy (DSA). All four CubeSats will study and monitor Earth’s ionosphere, using GPS receivers to measure the density of this atmospheric region while the spacecraft constantly changes altitude. DSA will analyze the collected data and modify the monitoring strategy in response to the observations, in coordination with the other satellites of the swarm. This ability to autonomously react to observation will be significant in the development of future science missions.

After this mission, a collaboration with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation will be opened to test space traffic management between autonomous satellites operated by different operators.


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The other payloads on board

In May, the Canadian satellite operator Telesat announced a contract award to Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) to build the new Low Earth Orbit demonstration (LEO 3) satellite. SFL then selected Rocket Lab for the launch of LEO 3.

Telesat is an innovative satellite operator that is developing Telesat Lightspeed, a global Ka-band network composed of a constellation of 188 LEO satellites that will be produced by Thales Alenia Space. LEO 3 will replace the first demonstration satellite (LEO 1) launched in 2018. SFL built the satellite based on its DEFIAN microsatellite platform.

Artistic impression of a Lightspeed satellite. Credits: Thales Alenia Space
Artistic impression of a Lightspeed satellite. Credits: Thales Alenia Space

Spire Global is a data and analytics company specialized in tracking maritime, aviation, and weather patterns. The company currently operates the second-largest commercial constellation, consisting of more than 100 spacecraft. In this mission, Spire will launch two 3U satellites equipped with Global Navigation Satellite System Radio Occultation (GNSS-RO).


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Rocket Lab is back at booster recovery

This mission is important not only for the payloads but also for a new phase in Rocket Lab’s recovery program, marking a crucial step towards the reusability of Electron’s first stage.

Since 2019 Rocket Lab has tried to find the best solution to recover, when possible, the first stage. After setting aside the mid-air capture option with a helicopter, Rocket Lab has shifted its focus to the maritime recovery of the booster, as done during the “The Beat Goes On” mission on March 23. Moreover, in April the company announced that later this year a launch will feature the refly of a single Rutherford engine.

"Baby Come Back" Electron's first stage coming down under its chute before splashdown. Credits: Rocket Lab
“Baby Come Back” Electron’s first stage coming down under its chute before splashdown. Credits: Rocket Lab

For this mission some upgrades have been made on Electron, to increase the ability of its components to withstand splashdown and seawater. A new lighter version of the parachute has been implemented and a new two-point lifting method was used to retrieve the booster. The recovery vessel has also been upgraded.

Francesco Sebastiano Moro

Francesco Sebastiano Moro

Aerospace engineering student at University of Padua, passionate of space and aerospace sector.

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