Monday, January 22, 2018

The Rocket Lab Electron Rocket Has Placed Three Satellites in Orbit

          By Brian Orlotti

Huntington CA and New Zealand based Rocket Lab has launched an Electron rocket from its private spaceport in New Zealand, successfully achieving earth orbit and deploying three commercial satellites. The launch is another critical milestone for the commercial space industry; the entry of a second commercial space launch provider.

As outlined in the January 22nd, 2018 Associated Press post, "Rocket launched from New Zealand successfully deploys satellites," this was the company's second attempt. The Electron rocket had made its first flight in May 2017 but, despite reaching space, it failed to achieve Earth orbit.

The latest flight, which took place on January 20th, 2018, saw the Electron rocket deploy a Dove Pioneer Earth-imaging cube-sat for San Francisco, CA based Planet and two Lemur-2 cube-sats for San Francisco, CA based Spire, a weather and ship-tracking firm.

Rocket Lab was founded in 2006 by New Zealander Peter Beck, the company's current 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 Department of Defence’s (DoD) Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS) to study a low cost space launcher to place nano-satellites into orbit.

The company’s investors include venture capital firms Data Collective (DCVC), Promus Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Khosla Ventures and K1W1 Investments as well as US aerospace behemoth Lockheed Martin and the Government of New Zealand.

Rocket Lab’s Series D funding round increased the company’s total level of investment to $148Mln USD ($200Mln CDN). The company is now valued at over $1Bln USD ($1.35Bln CDN).

Rocket Lab is at the vanguard of a group of firms, which include Long Beach, CA based Virgin Orbit and Tucson, AZ based Vector Space Systems, aiming to launch this year. These firms seek to service the growing market for on-demand launch of small commercial and government satellites.

The Electron is a 17m tall two-stage launcher designed to deliver payloads of 150 kg into a 500km Sun-synchronous orbit. The 3D printed carbon-composite rocket is powered a cluster of 9 in-house built Rutherford engines (after the New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford) that use liquid oxygen and kerosene. The Rutherford engine incorporates new innovations to minimize weight and cost, including battery-powered fuel pumps and (mostly) 3D-printed components. The Electron’s projected cost is less than $5Mln USD ($6.7Mln CDN) per launch.

Rocket Lab currently has five Electrons in production, with the next launch expected to take place in early 2018. At full production, the company expects a launch rate of over 50 times a year.

In addition to customers like NASA, Spire, Planet Labs and Spaceflight, Rocket Lab is preparing a Moon launch for Mountain View, CA based Moon Express (ME). Co-founded by Canadian space entrepreneur Bob Richards, ME seeks to offer commercial lunar robotic transportation and data services with a long-term goal of mining lunar resources.

ME was last discussed in depth in the June 5th, 2017 post, "Only Seven Years after Bob Richards Left Canada, His Rover is Going to the Moon."

And where does Canada stand in all of this? Apparently, quite content with our dependence on other nations for launching our satellites, as shown by last week’s launch of Toronto-based Kepler Communications 3U cubesat on a Chinese Long March 11 rocket.

As outlined in the January 22nd, 2018 More Commercial Space News post, "Kepler’s first Ku-band satellite is in orbit - Kepler Communications," their first satellite launch is part of a larger plan to eventually deploy a 140 satellite constellation operating in the Ku-band, "a highly sought-after frequency band for satellite communications - especially amongst many of the planned mega constellations," which is expected to be rolled out over the next few years.

For more on the variety of satellite constellations being planned, it's worth checking out the November 20th, 2016 post, "SpaceX, Telesat & Kepler Just Three of the Dozen Satellite Constellations Currently on the FCC Table."

With the Trump Administration’s termination of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) looking increasingly likely and Canada about to be cast adrift, fostering a Rocket Lab of our own might be in order.

Our country certainly doesn’t lack the talent or resources for it.
Brian Orlotti.

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

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