The winnowing of small satellite launchers may be pretty brutal

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2019-04-02

  • Liftoff of the R3D2 mission for DARPA on March 28. [credit: Kieran Fanning and Sam Toms ]

Last week, Rocket Lab launched its fifth Electron rocket, flying a dedicated mission for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to test a new type of antenna that can be packed tightly for stowage during launch and then deployed to a full size of 2.25 meters in diameter once in space.

It was an important mission because it allowed Rocket Lab to show the US government that it could support missions like this and validated the military's desire to move toward smaller, faster-to-launch, and lower-cost payloads for critical missions. “The Department of Defense has prioritized rapid acquisition of small satellite and launch capabilities," Fred Kennedy, director of the defense agency's Tactical Technology Office, said before the launch.

This mission means that Rocket Lab has arrived as the first fully commercial player for private satellite, civil space, and defense launches in the small-satellite industry. This is the hottest area of the "new space" race, with dozens of companies large and small in the United States, China, and around the world seeking to develop new rockets to serve the market of satellites weighing from a few kilograms up to about one or two tons. By some counts, there are now as many as 117 such efforts at varying degrees of advancement.

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