Rocket Lab recently made a successful return to flight and launched a client satellite from its Electron Rocket, but that’s not all that happened on the mission. The company also secretly launched its own satellite, called Photon, that could one day fly ambitious deep space missions.
Photon is based on Rocket Lab’s “Kick Stage,” which is a mini rocket designed to boost satellite payloads into their final circular orbit once Electron has brought them to space. However, rather than just packing a propulsion system, Photon will carry additional electronics, orientation sensors, power generation units and instruments like cameras. That means that Photon can act as a satellite itself so that clients don’t need to contract third-party providers to design and build them.
Normally, once the Kick Stage does its job, Rocket Lab de-orbits it to burn up in the atmosphere. However, this time it sent a command that switched it into Photon satellite mode to continue on a standalone mission called “First Light.” Intended as a demonstration, it’s equipped with solar panels and a camera that can snap images of itself and the Earth.
Eventually, customers will be able to choose a “launch-plus-spacecraft” mission with the Electron Rocket and Photon satellite, which “eliminate[s] the complexity, risk and delays associated with having to build their own satellite hardware and procure a separate launch,” said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck in a statement.
During a press conference, Beck said that the company launched Photon in secret to “make sure it’s all good and it works before announcing it.” Rocket Lab said that a high-energy version of Photon will eventually fly “lunar and interplanetary missions,” including NASA’s Capstone mission in early 2021. In that mission, Photon will fly as a "pathfinder" that will help the Artemis program's Gateway spacecraft safely approach the Moon.