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Rocket Lab plans to launch the German company’s super-secret satellite

OHB Group, a German technology company, has partnered with Rocket Lab to launch a small communications satellite into low earth orbit on behalf of a customer. The payload is to be delivered by Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle on Saturday 16th January 2021 from New Zealand. Officials from both Rocket Lab and OHB have not provided details about the payload, which remains a secret to the public.

The spacecraft, built by the OHB divisions in Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic, will be launched during a seven-minute window opening at around 8 p.m New Zealand time. This will be Rocket Lab’s first mission in 2021 and its 18th flight on an Electron launcher. According to a statement given by Rocket Lab, “this is a single communication microsatellite that will enable specific frequencies to support future services from the orbit.”

Rocket lab’s founder and CEO, Peter Beck, noted that this launch is scheduled for six months after OHB signs the contract. “By flying a dedicated mission on Electron, OHB and their mission partners have control over launch timing, orbit, integration schedule, and other mission parameters,” added Beck. Dr. Lutz, OHB executive board member, said OHB had purchased the Electron Launcher for a customer. “We will also operate it until the end of the satellite’s operational life,” Bertling said. The identity of the customer remains unknown. However, satellite market specialists have been speculating on who it might be.

An image of Electron rocket’s payload shows a pair of mission logos. According to a tweet by Alexandre Najjar, the logos might reveal the identity of the covert customer. “I think I have ID-ed the mystery OHB payload,” tweeted Najjar, who works at the Euroconsult as a satellite market consultant. He added that the payload seems to serve as a prototype for the low earth orbit broadband network which is linked to GMS, Chinese Company that also goes by the name Shanghai Spacecom Satellite Technology. GMS collaborates with KLEO Connect, a company based in Germany, to develop small satellites. GMS funds the project, which is aimed at providing data relay services and industrial asset tracking. KLEO Connect launched successful technology demonstration satellites in 2019, using a Chinese rocket.

According to Najjar’s tweet, the secrecy of the relationship between OHB and GMS could be due to the Germany-China relations. Rocket Lab’s Electron is an 18- meter launch vehicle capable of carrying 200kilograms of payload to an altitude of 500km on the polar orbit. The company’s Electron flights are inexpensive, which gives small satellite operators a chance to get rides for their payloads. Rocket Lab sells the flights at approximately $7 million per ride.

The Electron rocket will launch from the Mahia Peninsula launch complex, heading south to deliver the secret payload to a polar orbit. The two-stage rocket uses a Rutherford engine, propelled by kerosene and liquid oxygen fuel. During this flight, the Electron’s first stage will burn the 9 engines for two and a half minutes. The second stage is going to inject the kick stage and microsatellite into an elliptical transfer orbit. The kick stage uses a Curie engine. It will “perform a series of burns to raise apogee and act as a space tug to deliver the satellite to its precise orbital destination,” said Rocket Lab. This mission has been nicknamed ‘Another One Leaves the Crust.’

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