Rocket Lab launches DARPA’s R3D2 experimental satellite from New Zealand

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle rises from its New Zealand launch pad. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab executed its first launch of the year from New Zealand today, sending an experimental satellite into orbit for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The company’s Electron launch vehicle lifted off from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula right on time, at 4:27 p.m. PT. Launch had been delayed for several days — first, due to concerns about a video transmission system, and then due to unacceptable weather conditions.

The Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration, or R3D2, is designed to unfurl a 7-foot-wide antenna to demonstrate how large structures can be packed within small satellite-size packages.

DARPA’s antenna is as thin as tissue paper but made of super-strong Kapton fabric. Over the course of at least six months, mission managers will monitor the antenna’s deployment and performance.

“The antenna could enable multiple missions that currently require large satellites, to include high data rate communications to disadvantaged users on the ground,” DARPA said in a pre-launch fact sheet.

The mission is also aimed at demonstrating low-cost, rapid-deployment space operations: It took about 18 months to go from satellite design to launch — and DARPA’s launch cost is $6.5 million, which is far less than the norm.

Check back for updates to this developing story.

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