Is New Zealand poised to become the world's next center for space commerce? If events of the next week or so pan out, the answer is yes. Between now and June 1, aerospace company Rocket Lab plans to conduct the inaugural launch of its Electron rocket from its Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand's North Island. If successful, it will mark the first launch of a craft into space from the Southern Hemisphere nation.
Founded in 2006, US-based Rocket Lab hopes to turn the sleepy little Mahia Peninsula on the North Island into a major hub of space commerce, with 120 liftoffs per year at a rate of one every 72 hours. Considering the fact that the United States only manages about 25 per year, that's a very ambitious schedule even Elon Musk might see as hectic.
The key to this is the company's Electron launch system, which is designed to cut into the light payload end of the space market. The grapefruit-sized satellites of 1958 have blown up to monsters the size of double-decker buses over the past half century, but the arrival of nanosat technology means that heavier payloads are no longer the only game in town.
Rocket Lab's plan is to cater to customers who want to loft smaller satellites of less than 150 kg (330 lb) to reach a sun-synchronous orbit at a cost of about US$4.9 million. That is, an orbit about 500 km (310 mi) high, which is configured so the Earth below is always in sunlight.
To achieve this rate and such a (relatively) low price, Rocket Lab's Electron goes against the trend toward reusable rockets, instead using a cheap booster made out of composites and 3D-printed rocket components, and swapping turbo pumps for electric motors powered by lithium-ion batteries to feed propellants into its in-house designed Rutherford engines. According to the company, this "electric" rocket will generate 4,600 lbf (20,462 N) of thrust and a specific impulse of 327 seconds.
The Electron itself is a two-stage rocket measuring 1 meter (3.2 ft) in diameter and 20 meters (65.6 ft) high and, with empty tanks, weighs about as much as a Mini Cooper. Due to the high winds on North Island, the Electron has a two-axis thrust vector control system. In addition, it has an advanced avionics system weighing 19 lb (8.6 kg), uses a plug-and-play system to prevent cascading delays caused by component failures, and allows customers to provide alternative payloads at short notice.
Rocket Lab says that the Electron booster will be able to lift a payload into orbit using less fuel than a 737 flying from New York to Los Angeles.
The payload-less maiden flight of the Electron, called "It's a Test," is scheduled for Tuesday, May 23, 2017, but this is at the mercy of weather conditions, which have already caused one delay during the 10-day launch window.
"Safety is Rocket Lab's number one priority," says Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab. "Unfortunately, [Sunday's] high winds in Mahia prevented our team from rolling the rocket out to the launch pad in preparations for launch. We are keeping a close eye on the weather and will roll out the rocket [on Monday] as the weather has improved, with the goal of a launch attempt [Tuesday]."
Rocket Lab claims to have reached space in a suborbital flight of its Ātea-1 sounding rocket in 2009, but this remains unverified because it carried no instruments and was not tracked.
The video below shows the Electron arriving at the launch complex.
Source: Rocket Lab
Update (May 23, 2017): This story originally stated that Rocket Lab's would "the first launch of a craft into space from the Southern Hemisphere". This was incorrect as there have been a number of launches from Woomera in South Australia. The text has been modified for this reason and we apologize for the error.