The world’s first privately operated rocket launch range will open next year on New Zealand’s South Island.
The facility will cater for launches of Auckland-based company Rocket Lab, which is developing its Electron rocket – a carbon composite launch vehicle equipped with a 3D-printed engine.
"One advantage of New Zealand being this little island nation in the middle of nowhere is that's the perfect place to launch a rocket," said Rocket Lab's CEO Peter Beck.
As New Zealand only faces Antarctica to the south, even frequent launches would only have minimal impact on local marine traffic. In busier, more populated areas, rocket launches require ships to be excluded from areas below the rocket’s trajectory and also impose limitations on air traffic.
Rocket Lab envisions launching one rocket per week from around 2018. At $5m per launch, the 16m tall rocket weighing 1,190kg would be able to deliver a payload of up to 110kg.
Designed to accommodate the needs of the growing small satellite market, the Electron rocket is only about a third of the weight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and will enable Rocket Lab to offer prices around a tenth of those currently typical in the industry.
Rocket Lab was one of three companies awarded a contract by Nasa to start launching small satellites for the agency in 2017.
Currently, operators of cube sats, nanosats and other small satellites have to wait for suitable free spots on rockets carrying large satellites as their primary payload. No dedicated launch vehicle for small satellites currently exists, which gives the satellite operators no control over when and where to launch their payload.
"We're not about building a rocket; we're about enabling the small satellite revolution," said Beck.
The Satellite Industry Association says just over 200 satellites were launched in 2014, nearly double the previous year.
Three separate internet broadband ventures to provide low-cost internet from the top of the Himalayas to the middle of the Sahara desert are being planned by One Web, Samsung and SpaceX, with support from Google. These alone will require 6,000 new satellites in the next four years, Rocket Lab predicts.