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Rocket Lab expands its enterprise to construct satellites after secretly launching its photon spacecraft

Rocket Lab's photon satellite in orbit around Earth.

Missile laboratory

Small rocket builder Rocket Lab is expanding its business to include spacecraft that are paired with its rockets. The company's recent launch includes its first ever Photon satellite.

"We're trying to fundamentally change what it means to do things in orbit and actually build business in orbit," said Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, in a webcast Thursday.

Beck stated that the company's 14th launch on Monday went as planned and the Electron rocket put a 100-pound Capella Space imaging satellite into orbit. While Rocket Lab completed the livestream of the launch as expected, Beck announced that the mission was not yet over at that point. Rocket Lab issued an order that turned the electron's "kick stage," a small top piece of the rocket that put the satellites into orbit, "into our very first satellite," Beck said.

Rocket Lab named the satellite "First Light" because it was the company's first "configurable" photonic spacecraft. The company announced plans to develop the Photon line of spacecraft in April 2019, with the goal of creating a new platform for businesses and organizations to test and operate technologies on in space. Previously, anyone who wanted to start a sensor – for example for images or analyzes – built or ordered the hardware of the spacecraft with which the technology was to be equipped and operated. However, Rocket Lab's Photon platform offers a new option that can help reduce the cost and risk of building a spacecraft.

"[Photon is] a complete end-to-end solution where customers can simply come to us with their idea or innovation and we can get it into orbit in a really affordable time frame and at a really affordable cost," said Beck. "We are trying to reduce the time and effort involved in setting up a team of experts or building our own satellites."

Rocket Lab's "Photon" satellite platform to the right is displayed at the company's facility next to an upper stage of the Electron rocket.

Missile laboratory

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket costs around $ 7 million per launch and can lift up to 300 kilograms of payload into orbit. After completing 13 missions and only one failure in July, Beck said that Rocket Lab's success in the startup business means that "access to space is really no longer the problem". The company acquired satellite hardware maker Sinclair Interplanetary in May, as part of Rocket Lab's "very large" investment in building its Space Systems division, Beck said. The company declined to quantify how much it has or plans to continue investing in the Photon platform, but its newly expanded headquarters in Long Beach, Calif. Has facilities for everything from building Electron's rocket engines to integrating Satellites in photon.

The First Light satellite is "a technology demonstrator" for the Photon platform, but Beck said it proves "all of the systems and operations and everything we need to get us to the moon and Venus and beyond". Rocket Lab has several more launches planned this year and booked 26 missions for 2021, including using Electron and Photon to launch a small NASA satellite into orbit the moon early next year.

"This is the future," said Ehson Mosleh, chief space systems engineer at Rocket Lab, on the webcast.

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