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Electron Rocket takes off from New Zealand peninsula

Battery-powered, 3D-printed rocket launched by New Zealand from South Pacific

Image credit: Rocket Lab

An inexpensive, disposable rocket has been launched into space from a New Zealand peninsula, a promising, early step in the country’s fledgling space programme.

Rocket Lab, the company behind the launch, is among the 30 or so organisations developing small-scale satellite launches as an alternative to large launchers, which typically charge around $50 million per launch. Rocket Lab aims to charge just $5 million per launch.

The company has spent four years preparing for the test launch and recently received a green light from the US Federal Aviation Administration to begin the flight. According to Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck, the “Electron Rocket” project aims to make space accessible with frequent launch opportunities.

The Electron Rocket is lightweight and disposable, with 3D-printed electric engines, and could be manufactured in high volumes. It carries a small payload of approximately 150kg and would be capable of surveillance and providing internet access.

Poor weather conditions prevented the rocket from launching three times before it successfully took off on its maiden flight. The rocket reached space three minutes after launch, although it failed to enter into orbit.

“It has been an incredible day and I’m immensely proud of our talented team,” announced Beck. “We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why; however, reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position.”

The company have said that they will aim to enter orbit during their next test. Rocket Lab hope to carry out two more tests this year before it begins its commercial operations, potentially launching a rocket every week. Its clients will include NASA and Earth-imaging firm Planet.

The successful launch of this inexpensive rocket could prove a significant step in the race to lower practical and financial barriers to space access, while also marking New Zealand out as a potential space hub.

Whenever a rocket is launch, ships and planes require re-routing. In a place like the US, with crowded skies, opportunities are hard to come by. However, New Zealand – with its sparse population and location in the South Pacific with only Antarctica to the South – is in a good position to launch satellites, particularly those bound for north-to-south orbit around Earth’s poles.

New Zealand hopes to become an affordable space hub, and its government has created new rocket legislation and set up a small space agency in anticipation of this, the New Zealand Space Agency. Already, high altitude balloons have been lifting off from its South Island, and a new research centre has been established to develop satellite data products.

“So far, it’s only superpowers that have gone into space,” said Simon Bridges, New Zealand’s economic development minister. “For us to do it, and be in the first couple of handfuls of countries in the world, is pretty impressive.”

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