October 28, 2021

Rocket Lab will use SBIR funding to launch a NASA smallsat

2 min read

While NASA works on a more uniform strategy for launching smallsats, Rocket Lab will deploy a NASA technology demo satellite under an unusual arrangement.

NASA chose Rocket Lab to deploy ACS3 (Advanced Composite Solar Sail System) spaceship on the Electron rocket, the firm said on October 6. The 12-unit cubesat is going to test the launch of a solar sail with seven-meter-long composite booms. Those booms, which will unroll in 20 – 30 minutes, are meant to be lighter and less prone to thermal distortion than standard iron booms.

ACS3 is going to be part of the Electron rideshare mission that will launch from New Zealand in mid-2022. The launch stage of the rocket will first deploy unnamed payloads before raising its orbit to place ACS3 in a higher orbit.

The contract’s value was not disclosed in Rocket Lab’s release, which was made just after the markets closed, but company’s shares jumped in after-hours trading as well as closed up 10% in trade on October 7. The deal was valued at about $1.092 million, according to a NASA representative.

The launch will be carried out under the SBIR (Small Business Innovative Research) Phase 3 deal, according to a NASA fact sheet about this mission. According to NASA, these contracts cover “the commercialization of innovative technologies, services, and products” produced as part of Phase 2 and Phase 1 awards. Without having to hold another competition, Phase 3 awards could be issued based on work “that is generated from, extends, or finishes efforts” from previous SBIR awards.

Rocket Lab “had been awarded contested Phase II and Phase I awards with the Department of Defense,” NASA spokesman Tiffany Blake said on October 8, allowing NASA to complete Phase 3 award for deployment. She did not specify the awards that qualified Rocket Lab for a Phase 3 deployment deal.

Rocket Lab had only one SBIR award, as per the federal government’s SBIR.gov database. DARPA awarded the business the Phase 1 SBIR award in the year 2015 for studies which included looking into using Electron as the upper stage for DARPA’s XS-1 spaceplane, that has since then been scrapped, as well as flying data to aid in the creation of the autonomous flight termination system.

The award highlights the diverse methods NASA has used to launch cubesats and another tiny spacecraft. This has included anything from secondary payload space on past NASA missions to the purchase of the dedicated small launch vehicles, as NASA did in the year 2020 for the CAPSTONE lunar smallsat project, which Rocket Lab is going to launch on the Electron no early than late this year.

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