US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab is officially open for business and has scheduled its very first commercial launch for later this month. The company will launch its small Electron rocket with payloads from two paying satellite operators on board — just three months after completing a second test flight of the vehicle. The upcoming mission will initiate the beginning of customer operations for Rocket Lab, which claims to have a busy manifest for this year and next.
After four years of developing the Electron, Rocket Lab flew the vehicle for the first time in May 2017 out of the company’s own private launch site in New Zealand. That test flight — appropriately dubbed It’s a Test — made it to space, though the rocket didn’t achieve orbit, due to a glitch in communication equipment on the ground. Rocket Lab was able to fix the problem, though, and performed a second test flight of the Electron in January in a mission called “Still Testing.” That time, the vehicle did make it to orbit and even deployed four satellites, including a secret disco ball probe made by Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck.
the beginning of customer operations for Rocket Lab
Now, Rocket Lab has deemed the Electron ready for commercial flights. (Originally, the company had planned to do three test flights but then decided two was enough.) This next launch is scheduled to go up sometime during a 14-day launch window that opens on April 20th at 12:30PM New Zealand Time (or 7:30PM ET the previous day for those on the East Coast). Two satellite companies, Spire Global and GeoOptics Inc., will have small spacecraft on board the rocket. And once again, Rocket Lab has given this mission a very clear title: It’s Business Time.
The launch will put Rocket Lab one step closer to its goal of becoming a dedicated launcher of small satellites. The company’s 55-foot-tall Electron rocket is capable of putting cargo between 330 and 500 pounds into low Earth orbit, which is a small load compared to the SpaceX Falcon 9 that can send up to 50,000 pounds to the same part of space. Rocket Lab isn’t looking to launch large bus-sized satellites like SpaceX does, though. Instead, it wants to capitalize on the small satellite revolution by sending up a handful of tiny spacecraft at a time.
And that’s already proven to be an attractive option for small satellite operators, which usually have to resort to rocket ride-shares to get their hardware into space. Typically, tiny spacecraft have to hitch rides on the launches of much bigger satellites if there’s leftover room. But with a small rocket like the Electron, miniature satellites can get a flight all to themselves. So far, Rocket Lab says flights of the Electron are basically all booked for 2018 and 2019.
“We always set out to create a vehicle and launch site that could offer the world’s most frequent launch capability.”
Meanwhile, the company is aiming to increase the frequency of its launches over the next couple of years. Rocket Lab says its New Zealand launch facility is licensed to launch every 72 hours, so the Electron could technically fly every three days if needed. Rocket Lab isn’t there yet, but the company claims it has a manufacturing process that will eventually allow one Electron to be built every week. Plus, it’s hoping to get to one launch a month by the end of 2018.
“It’s Business Time represents the shift to responsive space,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “We always set out to create a vehicle and launch site that could offer the world’s most frequent launch capability and we’re achieving that in record time.”
Rocket Lab has also gotten into the habit of live-streaming its launches, too. Video will be available about 15 minutes before the flight on the company’s website. Rocket Lab also gives updates on its Twitter account about launch times, so keep tabs on that to see when this next Electron goes up.