A New Zealand-headquartered aerospace company, Rocket Lab, is developing a world-first launch vehicle to deliver satellites into orbit cheaper and faster than ever before.
Rocket Lab is revolutionising the global space industry with the creation of a light-weight, cost-effective rocket, making it easier for companies to launch small satellites into orbit.
The company is building a world-first carbon-composite launch vehicle, named Electron, at its Auckland facility to reduce the price of delivering a satellite into orbit. At a price of less than US$5 million, compared to an average of more than US$100 million, this represents a drastic cost reduction compared to existing dedicated launch services, chief executive Peter Beck says.
“The lead-time for businesses to launch a satellite will also be reduced from years to weeks,” he says, “through vertical integration with Rocket Lab’s private launch facility.”
He says Rocket Lab has attracted strong commercial demand for its service with commitments for its first 30 launches.
Electron is 18m in length, 1m diameter and will weigh more than 10 tonnes. This will be the first vehicle of its class capable of delivering payloads up to 100kg into low Earth orbits (LEO). Its first launch is scheduled in 2015.
A New Zealander, Mr Beck founded Rocket Lab in 2007 with a vision of eliminating the commercial barriers to space. In 2009, Rocket Lab became the first private company to reach space in the southern hemisphere with its Atea 1 suborbital sounding rocket.
Mr Beck says present day rockets have remained prohibitively large and expensive, despite the trend for satellites to become smaller, more capable and affordable. The deficit in launch systems creates a severe barrier for commercial ventures and for the emerging satellite constellation markets.
“The innovation behind Electron will release the limitations on launching small satellites. Our vision at Rocket Lab is to make space commercially viable and more accessible than ever before, doing what the Ford Model T did for consumer automobiles. This technology will really open space for business.
“Along with benefits for commercial enterprises, cheaper and faster space access has the potential to lead to more accurate weather prediction, global high speed Internet access, as well as real-time monitoring of the impacts of human development,” Mr Beck says.
Mr Beck says geographically, New Zealand is in an ideal launch position for a variety of different types of orbits and plans are underway to build a space port on home soil.
“This will bring an innovative and exciting new industry to New Zealand with economic benefits at both a regional and national level. We’re currently considering a shortlist of regions as potential locations for a space port and encourage any region interested to get in touch with us now,” says Beck.
Rocket Lab’s principal funder is Silicon Valley giant Khosla Ventures, a top-tier venture capital firm that supports companies with projected revenues in excess of US $1 billion.
Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla says it is exciting to see to the technology and innovation coming out of Rocket Lab.
“Opening up access to space will be one of the fundamental developments of our time. We are very excited about our investment in Rocket Lab, which represents technology inventions to help emerge a whole new generation of commercial opportunities by having efficient and cost effective access to space,” Mr Khosla says.
“The company’s technical innovations will truly transform the space industry.”
Schafer Corporation chief executive and previous NASA administrator Michael Griffin says that Rocket Lab’s work could be an important game changer in the space industry and that its innovative design approach offers a really attractive path to lower cost access to space.
“We’re all working towards a future where space becomes more accessible and Rocket Lab’s latest innovation is an important step in making that happen,” Mr Griffin says.
Electron: Fast facts
• Lift off mass: 10,500kg
• Propellant mass: 9,200kg
• Propellants: Liquid oxygen and kerosene
• Length: 18m
• Diameter: 1m
• Top speed: 27,500kph
• Maximum engine thrust: 146,000 N (14.8 tonnes)
• Engine equivalent power: 530,000hp
• Nominal orbit: 500km circular sun synchronous
• Nominal payload: 110kg
Photo: Peter Beck with the Electron.