New Zealand-based space firm Rocket Lab will kick off its 2019 mission schedule with the dedicated launch of a 150kg satellite for the Pentagon in late February – the first in what is expected to be monthly launches for the company this year.

The launch will see an experimental communications antenna for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is part of the US Department of Defense, lofted into low earth orbit. Once deployed the antenna, made of a tissue-thin Kapton membrane, will unfold to its full 2.25m diameter size.

The prototype reflect array antenna is designed to improve radio communications in small spacecraft.

“This mission could help validate emerging concepts for a resilient sensor and data transport layer in low Earth orbit – a capability that does not exist today, but one which could revolutionize global communications by laying the groundwork for a space-based internet,” said DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office director, Fred Kennedy.

In December, Rocket Lab launched 13 CubeSats – satellites the size of a shoebox – for NASA. The launch, as part of NASA’s ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) program was the first time NASA CubeSats had hitched a dedicated ride to orbit on a commercial launch vehicle.

The company is making a name for itself by providing cheaper, faster space access and launch opportunities for small satellites, which have mostly been limited to rideshare type arrangements, flying only when space is available on large launch vehicles.

Rocket Lab’s 17 metre expendable Electron rockets, with a diameter of 1.2m, can carry a maximum payload of 225kg and include an optional apogee kick stage which can execute multiple burns to place payloads into different orbits. Rideshare customers have traditionally been limited to the primary payloads orbit. The rocket’s Rutherford oxygen/kerosene engine is 3D printed.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and CEO, said rapid acquisition of small satellite launch capabilities is increasingly important to US government organisations like DARPA.

“The ability to rapidly space-quality new technology and deploy space-based assets with confidence on short notice is a service that didn’t exist for dedicated small satellites until now,” Beck added.

DARPA said a successful deployment will “help prove out a smaller, faster-to-launch and lower cost capability, allowing the Department of Defense, as well as other users, to make the most of the new commercial market for small, inexpensive launch vehicles.”

According to the agency satellite design, development and launch took around 18 months.

Kennedy says “The Department of Defense has prioritised rapid acquisition of small satellite and launch capabilities. By relying on commercial acquisition practices, DARPA streamlined the R3D2 mission from conception through launch services acquisition.”

Rocket Lab completed three orbital missions last year, including sending its first commercial payloads, which included Fleet satellites for Adelaide’s Fleet Space Technologies, into space.

The Fleet satellites will form the foundation of a global IoT communications constellation planned by Fleet Space Technologies.

The mission will launch from Rocket Lab’s private launch pad in on the Mahia Peninsula on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island – one of two launch pads the company has, with the other being in Virginia in the United States.

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