Affordable rocket company celebrates first commercial launch
Image credit: Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab – which aims to provide the most affordable and frequent rocket launches yet – has successfully completed its first commercial launch from its New Zealand base.
The American aerospace company is known for Electron, its lightweight and expendable orbital rocket, which will provide affordable commercial launches for small satellites. The company carried out its first Electron test launches in May 2017 and January 2018 and has now completed its first commercial flight, following seven months of delay.
“It’s game on: this era has been coming and coming,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab CEO, speaking to Bloomberg after the launch. “Well, the small launch race is over, we have proven it can be done.”
Rocket Lab carried out the successful launch on Sunday afternoon at its Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. The Electron rocket (nicknamed “It’s Business Time” by Rocket Labs staff) lifted into space and deployed six satellites safely into orbit.
The collection of satellites included a weather satellite from Tyvak NanoSatellite Systems; two telecommunications satellite from Fleet Space Technologies; two satellites for tracking vehicles and weather in remote areas from Spire, and a single satellite built by California high-school students. The satellites were accompanied by a seventh payload: a drag sail which will attempt to de-orbit potentially dangerous space debris.
Flavia Tata Nardini, CEO of Fleet Space Technologies, told Bloomberg that the company had been waiting all year for a launch slot with SpaceX and the Indian government and that collaborating with Rocket Labs had allowed it to prepare its satellites for launch in record time.
Through most of the history of spaceflight, space companies have been forced to rely on very large government-backed organisations to launch their satellites into space, normally paying hundreds of millions of dollars for their large-scale and infrequent rocket launches. These entry costs have made it extremely challenging for smaller companies working with modestly-sized satellites to reach space.
In recent years, California-based aerospace company SpaceX has demonstrated that it is possible to offer considerably more affordable rocket launches, including with the use of recoverable rockets. This has opened up the opportunity today for medium-sized companies to put their satellites in orbit for under $50m (£39m), using SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The 70m Falcon 9 is the first orbital rocket to be recovered and reused, which significantly lowers the costs and environmental impact associated with each launch.
Rocket Lab offers an even more accessible service; it plans to complete launches within six months of agreement and will charge just $5.7m (£4.4m) per launch on its Electron rocket, which is approximately one-quarter the length of SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Rocket Lab aims to launch a rocket every month, increasing frequency to once a fortnight by the end of 2019 and once a week by 2020, possibly expanding to launch sites in Virginia, US, and the UK.
Its next launch – scheduled for December – aims to carry small Nasa satellites into orbit.
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