After three years of developing a brand-new rocket, aerospace startup Rocket Lab has finally transported a finished vehicle to the New Zealand launchpad where it will take its first flight. The rocket, called the Electron, has been tested on the ground over the last year but has never been flown to space before. Over the next couple of months, Rocket Lab will conduct a series of test launches of the vehicle to verify that it’s ready to carry payloads into orbit for commercial customers.
Compared to other major commercial rockets like the Falcon 9 or the Atlas V, the Electron is pretty small — only 55 feet tall and and around 4 feet in diameter. That’s because the vehicle is specifically designed to launch small satellites. The vehicle can carry payloads ranging from 330 to 500 pounds into an orbit more than 300 miles up. That’s a relatively light lift contrasted with the Falcon 9, which can carry more than 50,000 pounds into lower Earth orbit.
But Rocket Lab isn’t interested in competing with major players like SpaceX or the United Launch Alliance. The company wants to capitalize solely on what is being hailed as the small satellite revolution — a trend of making space probes as tiny as possible. Typically, aerospace manufacturers will spend years and millions of dollars developing a satellite that’s roughly the size of a bus. And then an entire rocket is needed just to get one thousand-pound satellite into space. But technology has advanced in recent years, and companies have come up with ways to miniaturize their satellites, making these space probes as small as a shoebox. Small satellites usually take less time and money to make, and since they’re so compact, multiple probes can be launched to space on a single rocket.
Various aerospace companies have started focusing on making and operating small satellites, and because of the enthusiasm surrounding these tiny spacecraft, Rocket Lab has received a huge influx of launch requests. “The customer uptake for the product has just been phenomenal,” Peter Beck, the founder of Rocket Lab, tells The Verge. “I think it’s a testament to the industry that 2017 for us is totally fully booked and has been for a year or more. And 2018, there’s only a few spots left. We haven’t even flown the vehicle yet on one test flight, and the manifest is overflowing.”
Perhaps one of the things that makes Rocket Lab’s Electron so attractive to customers is the estimated price tag. The company claims it will only charge around $4.9 million for each launch. That’s a cheap option compared to one flight of the Falcon 9, for instance, which starts at $62 million.
The Electron also sports some unique design features. The vehicle’s nine main engines, known as Rutherford engines, are manufactured mostly through 3D printing; they’re also partially electric. Batteries are used to power the turbopumps — key hardware that funnels the vehicle’s propellant into the engines. Typically, turbopumps are powered by a gas generator, where you essentially have another engine that spins the pumps’ turbine blades, but Beck says the batteries reduce the complexity of the engine’s machinery.
“The reason why we arrived at the electric turbopump is we sat down and analyzed where the cost and complexity is in the engine, and it’s always in the turbine machinery,” says Beck. “The electric turbopump cycle allows us to take that really complicated thermodynamic problem and just turn it into software.”
Getting the rocket and its engines ready for spaceflight has certainly taken time, but Rocket Lab has also had another daunting task to accomplish before the Electron can fly: creating an entirely new launchpad in New Zealand. It’s the country’s first launch site and the first private orbital launch range ever. And making the site functional has required more than just building the pad. Rocket Lab had to build tracking stations on remote islands in the Pacific, to trace the rocket’s path when it launches. The site also had to receive the necessary regulatory approvals to launch rockets.
“It’s really been a massive infrastructure build, as well as a launch vehicle build,” says Beck. “We joke around here that we wish that we just had to build a rocket like everyone else, because that would be easy. We had to build all the infrastructure that, normally, you would just turn up to a launch range and use.”
All launches out of the US take place at launch ranges run by government organizations. With the New Zealand pad, Rocket Lab will be in control of the launch site, the tracking facilities, and the launch vehicle. The goal is to use all of these tools to launch one rocket per week, creating frequent access to space for the company’s customers.
But first, Rocket Lab has to pull off its test flights of the Electron. The company plans to perform three test launches, the first of which is supposed to happen within the next few months. The inaugural rocket has been dubbed “It’s a Test,” and will carry scientific instruments in lieu of a payload to collect data about the flight. “We’re a very test heavy company; we do a lot of diligence in that area,” says Beck.
If those three flights are successful, then Rocket Lab will get to work fulfilling its contractual obligations to its customers. Those include small satellite operators Planet and Spire, as well as NASA. The space agency awarded Rocket Lab a $6.95 million contract in 2015 to launch a small NASA payload into lower Earth orbit. Additionally, Rocket Lab is slated to launch a small lunar lander for Moon Express, an aerospace company with long-term ambitions of mining the Moon someday. Moon Express is a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize competition — an international contest to send the first private spacecraft to the Moon’s surface — and in order to win, participants must launch their landers before December 31st, 2017.
So the success of Rocket Lab’s test flights is good news for Moon Express’ chances of winning the Google Lunar X Prize. "We are excited to see the Electron rocket arrive at the Mahia launch complex for its first test flight,” Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, tells The Verge. “The maiden launch of the Electron will be an exciting moment for Rocket Lab and the entire commercial space industry."