The first ever commercially-run orbital launch pad is about to open for business. The pad is currently being constructed on the Kaitorete Spit — a long finger of land located along the Canterbury region of southern New Zealand. Known for its pebbly beaches, the land is home to a diverse population of rare insects, birds, reptiles, and plants, including the endangered Shrubby tororaro. There’s not much human presence; the area is extremely remote, with no shipping ports, travel hubs, or heavily trafficked airspace nearby.
It's the perfect spot.
"If you want to launch once a week, it’s impossible to do it from the US."
The launch pad is the project of New Zealand-based Rocket Lab, a private spaceflight company founded in 2007 with a vision of sending small communication satellites into space. To put the company ahead of other satellite launchers, Rocket Lab has two distinct goals: reduce the cost of spaceflight while increasing the frequency of rocket launches to orbit. "That's really important for the small satellite revolution to occur," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck tells The Verge. This spaceport is one of the many ways Rocket Lab will try to meet those goals, by allowing the company to launch one rocket per week.
"If you want to launch once a week, it’s impossible to do it from the US," says Beck. "You've got so much air traffic, so much marine traffic and shipping traffic. For our program it’s critical that we get down to a launch rate once a week. The reason the launch site is down in New Zealand is we can launch with that frequency."
The Kaitorete Spit is a long finger of land (located at the bottom of the photo) that forms a barrier between Lake Ellesmere and the Pacific Ocean.
But Rocket Lab’s vision is bigger than just a spaceport; the company made headlines earlier this year when it introduced the concept for its Rutherford engine — the first rocket engine to incorporate battery power. The design calls for lithium polymer batteries to run the engine's turbo-pumps, which help direct the propellant to where it needs to go inside the engine. It’s the first time a battery will be used to do this, and Beck says it’s thanks to advances that allow smaller batteries to pack much more horsepower. According to the CEO, the use of the battery will significantly decrease the cost of powering the turbo-pumps — often an expensive aspect of engine design.
The Rutherford engine will be used in the company’s Electron rocket, which Rocket Lab will test in the fourth quarter of this year. Electron is meant to give companies a cheap option for launching small communication satellites into orbit as frequently as possible. While the engine's battery component will help to bring down these launch costs, Beck noted the company still needed a way to increase launch frequency. That's where this new spaceport will come into play.
Launching small communication satellites into orbit as frequently as possible
Whenever a company or space agency wishes to launch from current launch pads, regulatory agencies must issue an order restricting airspace, bridges, and waterways within 30 to 40 nautical miles of the launch site. This can be an issue for launch pads located near important travel routes. Kennedy Space Center, for example, is located near frequently-used East Coast air routes, which can make launching a rocket difficult during busy travel times like holidays. Thanks to this new launch pad's remote New Zealand location, Beck says setting up launch windows once a week won't be an issue.
Currently, all launch pads used for sending rockets into orbit are operated by national government agencies. Rocket Lab had to obtain permits from New Zealand, but the spaceport is wholly overseen and operated by the company.
Rocket Lab's Electron rocket (Rocket Lab)
Already, Rocket Lab has more than 30 customers signed up to launch their satellites aboard the Electron. With all the company's cost-saving measures combined, Beck says each launch will cost a mere $4.9 million. That's crazy low: the average cost of a rocket launch hovers around $130 million, with the lowest cost vehicle running for about $30 million.
The only problem with the one-launch-per-week scheme? Rocket Lab's promises are all talk for now. They have yet to launch any rockets; the company's first test of the Electron rocket will occur later this year, with commercial operations planned to begin in 2016. So it remains to be seen if the company's ambitious pricing goals and launch schedules will be met.
Yet many within the spaceflight industry seem optimistic about Rocket Lab’s claims. Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC, a commercial spaceflight consulting agency, says that Rocket Lab’s designs seem to check out.
The company's first test of the Electron rocket will occur later this year
"People who I highly respect who have looked at their technology think they may have something," says Miller. "It’s a very innovative idea for reducing the cost of launch vehicles, but the proof is in the pudding; they’ve got to make it work."
Miller says the main problem, however, may revolve around finding enough business. "There are not a lot of customers," says Miller. "You never get enough business to bring down the price. Companies figure out how to build it, and there’s not enough launch rate to keep flying." Though Miller admitted that demand for small rocket launches may grow, as the small satellite revolution continues. "You’ve got companies like OneWeb and other companies building large constellations; that potential could be a big enough business to keep a couple companies in business."
One of Spire Global's small satellites in development (Spire Global)
One of Rocket Lab's customers is Spire Global — a satellite-powered data company backed by Bessemer Venture Partners. According to a representative from BVP, the promise of a regular launch schedule is what made Rocket Lab particularly attractive over other launch options. "I was on the board of Skybox Imaging, the imaging satellite company Google acquired, and the number one problem was launch," says David Cowan, a partner at BVP. "We could overcome all the science and technology of the project, but we were never able to control launch schedules."
Spire Global intends to launch 100 small satellites into orbit, to form a constellation that will track ships and gather weather data over the oceans. Cowan says that since Rocket Lab is focused solely on launching satellites, Spire Global will be able to get those satellites into orbit as quickly as possible.
"When you’re trying to deliver a constellation, you don’t need something that’s super performant and huge, you need something that can make frequent visits to space on a regular, reliable schedule," says Cowan. "That’s a very different design goal than what you see coming from all the incumbent rocket manufacturers including SpaceX. If you want to create a steady stream of rockets into space, you want to design something very different."