WASHINGTON — A Japanese company developing a constellation of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites is the latest to turn to Rocket Lab after the bankruptcy of rival launch company Virgin Orbit.
Rocket Lab announced Aug. 17 that it signed a contract with Institute for Q-shu Pioneers of Space (iQPS) for a dedicated launch of its QPS-SAR-5 satellite on a Electron rocket. That launch, on a mission called “The Moon God Awakens”, is scheduled for September from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.
The satellite was originally to launch on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket under a contract announced in May 2022. At the time of the contract announcement, QPS-SAR-5 was scheduled for launch in early 2023, but had not yet launched when Virgin Orbit filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April and later ceased operations.
Neither company mentioned Virgin Orbit’s bankruptcy directly in the announcement of the new contract, but did allude to it. “This is exactly the kind of mission Electron was designed for and has delivered on time and time again: a customer urgently seeking dedicated launch to a unique orbit on a rapid timeline,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in the statement.
Shunsuke Onishi, chief executive of iQPS, noted “the delay due to status changes since our announcement of contract for QPS-SAR-5 in May last year” but did not directly mention the Virgin Orbit situation. “We highly appreciate Rocket Lab and our team for all their efforts in arranging this new launch contract as it is very meaningful for us to quickly deploy the satellites into orbit.”
In addition to the delay launching QPS-SAR-5, iQPS lost two other satellites, QPS-SAR-3 and -4, when a Japanese Epsilon rocket failed to reach orbit during an October 2022 launch. The QPS-SAR-6 satellite did make it to orbit as part of SpaceX’s Transporter-8 rideshare mission in June. The company has long-term plans for a 36-satellite constellation capable of producing SAR imagery at resolutions sharper than 50 centimeters.
The decision by iQPS to go with Rocket Lab comes after NorthStar Earth and Space, a Canadian company developing a constellation to collect space situational awareness data, announced in June it would launch its first set of four satellites on an Electron after previously signing a launch contract with Virgin Orbit.
Rocket Lab has been the beneficiary of Virgin Orbit’s bankruptcy because of the lack of options for dedicated smallsat launches as other companies face technical or financial struggles. “We’ve seen defections from all of the aspirational launch providers,” Beck said in an interview in July. “The industry is shaking out.”
The iQPS contract is the ninth Electron launch the company has won this month. Rocket Lab announced Aug. 8 that it won a contract for five Electron launches of BlackSky’s Gen-3 imaging satellites starting in 2024. A week later, NASA awarded Rocket Lab a task order under the agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) contract for two Electron launches of its PREFIRE Earth science cubesats in May 2024. Rocket Lab also announced a contract Aug. 8 for the suborbital version of Electron, called HASTE, for an undisclosed customer.
Rocket Lab has not disclosed the value of any of those contracts but said in its Aug. 8 earnings call it had a target launch cost of $7.5 million for the Electron. The company also reiterated its forecast of 15 Electron launches this year, of which it has completed seven.
Rocket Lab’s next launch, of a Capella Space SAR satellite, was postponed from late July and early August because of unusual data from an engine sensor. The launch is now scheduled for Aug. 23 in a four-hour window that opens at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.