Space

New Zealand: The next major space hub?

New Zealand: The next major sp...
The Electron Rocket is designed to deliver payloads into orbits for US$4.9 million
The Electron Rocket is designed to deliver payloads into orbits for US$4.9 million
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The Electron Rocket is designed to deliver payloads into orbits for US$4.9 million
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The Electron Rocket is designed to deliver payloads into orbits for US$4.9 million
Electron is constructed out of lightweight composites
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Electron is constructed out of lightweight composites
The Rocket Lab launch complex is on the North Island in New Zealand
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The Rocket Lab launch complex is on the North Island in New Zealand

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.

Electron is constructed out of lightweight composites
Electron is constructed out of lightweight composites

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 Rocket Lab launch complex is on the North Island in New Zealand
The Rocket Lab launch complex is on the North Island in New Zealand

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.

Electron Arrives at Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1

6 comments
0xFFFF
I thought it was better if up goers were launched closer to the equator?
DFrancis
The sentence "If successful, it will mark the first launch of a craft into space from the Southern Hemisphere." can be misinterpreted to give the impression that these NZ rockets are the first ever to have been launched downunder. What the author means, of course, is they are the first launches downunder for Rocket Labs. The folks who worked at Woomera may be a tad disgruntled to think their efforts were wiped from history. (Thanks for pointing this out. The error has now been corrected - Ed.)
Martin Winlow
"Is New Zealand poised to become the world's next center for space commerce?" No.
VincentBrennan
Not to be rude but one thing you can count on here is nay sayers. I have to think all thew concerns were considered before spending what is probably hundreds of millions of dollars to start this thing up. Very highly paid engineers have probably taken all this stuff into account. I am sure they have smart people that work on this project.
JimFox
VincentBrennan- you are not being rude but factual. Naysayers are as common as trolls on the net; everyone a self-appointed 'expert'. This is a very interesting company with radically different ideas; I too wondered 'why NZ' until I looked up 'Rocket Lab'- founded in 2006 by CEO and CTO New Zealander Peter Beck:- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocket_Lab https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rutherford_(rocket_engine)
JamesDemello
So you build a launch facility on an island where the wind is often high from which you hope to launch every 3 days. That doesn't seem very smart.