Rocket Lab has launched an experimental satellite for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

The launch is the company’s first this year and sent a prototype reflect array antenna on board Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle to orbit.

DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) mission aims to space-qualify a new type of membrane reflect array antenna to improve radio communications in small spacecraft.

The antenna is made of Kapton membrane and is as thin as a tissue. It is designed to pack tightly inside the R3D2 satellite for stowage during launch, before deploying to its full size of 2.25m in diameter once it reaches low Earth orbit (LEO).

The idea behind the design is to provide the capability of large spacecraft in a much smaller package, removing the need for satellite owners to build large satellites.

“The unique requirements of this mission made Electron the perfect launch vehicle to lift R3D2 as a dedicated payload to a highly precise orbit.”

According to DARPA, the mission involves monitoring antenna deployment dynamics, survivability and radio frequency characteristics of a membrane antenna in LEO.

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Through the mission, the agency hopes to validate emerging concepts for a resilient sensor and data transport layer in LEO. This is expected to pave the way for a space-based internet.

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor to build and integrate the 150kg R3D2 satellite. MMA Design supplied the antenna for the mission, while Trident Systems built R3D2’s software-defined radio and Blue Canyon Technologies provided the spacecraft bus.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said: “The unique requirements of this mission made Electron the perfect launch vehicle to lift R3D2 as a dedicated payload to a highly precise orbit.

“We look forward to continuing to provide frequent, reliable and rapidly acquired launch services for innovative small satellites.”

The mission took around 18 months from satellite design and development to launch.