Minimize R3D2

R3D2 (Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration)

Small satellite launch company Rocket Lab's first mission of 2019 will be a dedicated launch of a 150 kg minisatellite for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), highlighting the U.S. Government's demand for a responsive, ultra-flexible and rapidly acquired launch service such as Rocket Lab's Electron. 1) 2)

The demonstration mission could help validate emerging concepts for a resilient sensor and data transport layer in low Earth orbit – a capability that does not exist today, but one which could revolutionize global communications by laying the groundwork for a spaceborne internet. R3D2 will monitor antenna deployment dynamics, survivability and radio frequency (RF) characteristics of a membrane antenna in low-Earth orbit. The antenna could enable multiple missions that currently require large satellites, to include high data rate communications to disadvantaged users on the ground.


Figure 1: Left: The R3D2 minisatellite built by Northrop Grumman. Right: The antenna for the R3D2 spacecraft during deployment tests on the ground developed by MMA Design of Louisville CO (image credit: DARPA)

The 150 kg satellite will be the only payload on the launch as it takes up all the mass and volume available on the rocket. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for R3D2, with the antenna provided by MMA Design. and the satellite bus by Blue Canyon Technologies. Trident Systems designed and built R3D2's software-defined radio. 3)

"The Department of Defense has prioritized rapid acquisition of small satellite and launch capabilities. By relying on commercial acquisition practices, DARPA streamlined the R3D2 mission from conception through launch services acquisition," Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, said in a statement. The mission timeline, from satellite design and development through launch, will take about 18 months.

One issue for the upcoming launch is the need for a new launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, as this launch will be flying on a different trajectory than previous Electron launches licensed by the FAA. However, the FAA is not issuing new licenses amid the ongoing government shutdown.

"We're hoping that the government will open up again soon," Peter Beck of Rocket said. "Our customer is working with the appropriate channels to try and get that sorted out."

The launch is the first of 12 launches Rocket Lab expects to carry out in 2019. Despite the late start, Beck said the company will increase its launch cadence as the year goes on. The second launch of the year will take place four to five weeks after this mission, and by the end of the year Rocket Lab expects to be launching Electrons at a rate of one every two weeks. There may be a break in the middle of the year, he said, to implement "block upgrades" to the Electron and its launch facilities.


Launch: The R3D2 mission was launched on 28 March 2019 (23:27 GMT, or 12:27 NZDT on 29 March) on a Rocket Lab USA Electron rocket from the company's launch complex on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand. 4) 5)

With proven flight heritage from four orbital missions, Rocket Lab is the only fully commercial small satellite launch service provider in operation. The experienced Rocket Lab team has delivered 25 satellites to orbit, including innovative new space technologies that provide vital capabilities such as weather monitoring, Earth observation and IoT (Internet of Things) connectivity. The R3D2 mission was Rocket Lab's first of 2019, as the company heads into a busy year of launches booked for lift-off every four weeks. To support the small satellite industry's highest launch cadence, Rocket Lab is currently producing one Electron launch vehicle every 30 days across its Huntington Beach, California, and Auckland, New Zealand, production facilities.

Rocket Lab's Electron Rocket: The R3D2 mission was launched on an Electron launch vehicle, comprised of two fully carbon-composite stages, powered by a total of ten 3D printed and electric pump-fed Rutherford engines, designed and built in house by Rocket Lab at the company's headquarters in Huntington Beach, California. The R3D2 payload was deployed to a circular orbit by Rocket Lab's unique Kick Stage, an additional stage designed for precise orbital deployment and equipped with the ability to deorbit itself upon mission completion to leave no orbital debris behind.

About 53 minutes after liftoff, the booster (kick stage) delivered to orbit the 150 kg R3D2 (Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration) spacecraft, an experimental satellite to be operated by the U.S. DARPA.

Orbit: R3D2 spacecraft was deployed to a 425 x 425 km altitude at an inclination of 39.5 º by Electron's Kick Stage, a nimble upper stage designed to insert payloads with precise accuracy. 6)


Figure 2: Lift-off of the R3D2 mission from LC-1 (image credit: Kieran Fanning and Sam Toms)



DARPA's Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) mission intends to space-qualify a prototype reflect array antenna to improve radio communications in small spacecraft. The antenna, made of a tissue-thin Kapton membrane, packs tightly for stowage during launch and then will deploy to its full size of 2.25 meters in diameter once it reaches low Earth orbit. By compacting a large antenna into a small satellite, the spacecraft can provide significant capability, negating the need for satellite owners to build large satellites that can only be launched as a ride-share payload on big rockets with significant price tags and lengthy delays.


1) "Rocket Lab's Electron to Launch a Prototype Reflect Array Antenna for DARPA," Satnews Daily, 22 January 2019, URL:

2) "DARPA Prototype Reflectarray Antenna Offers High Performance in Small Package," DARPA, 22 January 2019, URL:

3) Jeff Foust, "Rocket Lab to launch DARPA satellite," Space News, 22 January 2019, URL:

4) "Rocket Lab successfully launches R3D2 satellite for DARPA," Rocket Lab, 28 March 2019, URL:

5) "A Kiwi Launches DARPA's $25 Million R3D2 ... Rocket Lab Sends Small Satellite Soaring From New Zealand," Satnews Daily, 29 March 2019, URL:

6) "DARPA R3D2 Press Kit March 2019," URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (