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.