Monday, May 29, 2017

Rocket Lab Launches "Orbital Class" Rocket From a Private Launch Pad

          By Brian Orlotti

New Zealand-based Rocket Lab has successfully launched the first of its 3D-printed carbon-composite Electron rockets. The launch marks another major milestone in the rise of the NewSpace industry.

A video of the first flight of the Rocket Lab Electron rocket from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, in Mahia New Zealand on May 25th, 2017. As outlined in the March 22nd, 2017 New Zealand Herald post, "Rocket Lab raises $100m - launch possible within the next two months," the total cost of the program, "once it is past the test stage," was approximately $75Mln US ($101Mln CDN) with most of those funds raised through the private sector (US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and the Government of New Zealand have also contributed). The latest round was led by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Data Collective, with additional investment from Promus Ventures. As outlined in the article, "Rocket Lab also attracted reinvestment from Bessemer Venture Partners, Khosla Ventures and Sir Stephen Tindall's investment firm K1W1. The Series D funding round - the company's fourth round of investment - increased Rocket Lab's total level of investment to US$148Mln US ($200Mln CDN)." The company is now valued at more than US$1Bln US ($1.35Bln CDN), which seems like a pretty good return on investment. Screenshot c/o Robot Pig. To view the complete video, simply click on the screenshot. 

As outlined in the May 25th, 2017 Popular Mechanics post, "Rocket Lab's 'Electron' Marks First Orbital-Class Launch From a Private Pad," the Electron flew from Rocket Lab’s facility at Mahia, New Zealand after three days of aborted attempts due to weather.

Though the rocket reached space, it did not achieve orbit. Nevertheless, the launch is considered a successful step towards achieving Rocket Labs’ goal of launching satellites and other payloads for various customers. Rocket Lab’s engineers will now sift through flight data to prepare for a second test launch sometime this summer.

The company plans three test flights before it begins commercial launch services later this year. Rocket Lab's customers include NASA and private firms Planet, Spire, Spaceflight and Moon Express, a team competing in the $30Mln US ($40Mln CDN) Google Lunar X-Prize.

Rocket Lab was founded in 2006 by New Zealander Peter Beck, the company's CEO and CTO. In 2009, Rocket Lab launched the Ātea-1 sounding rocket. In December 2010 Rocket Lab was awarded a contract from the US Dept of Defence’s Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS) to study a low cost space launcher to place nanosatellites into orbit.

Infographic comparing the Electron rocket to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) plus showing the location of Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the tip of the Mahia Peninsula, on the North Island of New Zealand. The size and payload of the Electron rocket compare favorably with a 2009 Canadian Space Agency (CSA) concept study which, as outlined in the April 22nd, 2016 post, "2009 Canadian Space Agency Report on Indigenous Canadian Launcher said "Yes!" But CSA Didn't Move Forward," could certainly have been built in Canada without the need to import technology from any other country. Graphic c/o Rocket Lab/ Graphic News.

The Electron is a two-stage, carbon-composite launch vehicle designed to deliver payloads of 150 kg to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit; the target range for the growing small satellite market. The rocket is powered by in-house built Rutherford engines (after the New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford) that burn a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene.

The Rutherford engine incorporates new innovations to minimize weight and cost. These include fuel pumps powered by battery-fed electric motors rather than a gas generator, expander, or preburner. In addition, the engine is fabricated mostly via 3D printing, using electron beam melting, in which layers of metal powder are melted in a high vacuum by an electron beam rather than a laser. When the Electron goes into full production, Rocket Lab expects a launch rate of over 50 times a year.

The Electron’s projected cost is less than $5Mln USD ($6.7Mln CDN) per launch.

With the launch of the Electron, New Zealand now joins Earth’s space-faring nations. Rocket Lab’s success proves the wisdom of the NewSpace business model and provides a lesson for other nations, including our own.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

1 comment:

  1. Just read that now even Australia and Singapore are getting in on act! A joint Australia/Singapore venture called Gilmour Space Technologies has just secured about $5 million CAD in Series A funding for development of their Eris orbital launch vehicle, which will be capable of lifting a 370 kg payload into a 350 km LEO according to the specs on their website. And get this, it is a 3-stage hybrid rocket, exactly the type of launch vehicle that was recommended in Continuum Aerospace's report in the April 22nd, 2016 post, "2009 Canadian Space Agency Report on Indigenous Canadian Launcher said "Yes!" But CSA Didn't Move Forward". Meanwhile, Canada is still twiddling it's thumbs about what our future in space is supposed to be. Truly lamentable.


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