Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A Rising Electron Lifts All Boats

          By Brian Orlotti

Huntington CA and New Zealand based Rocket Lab has launched an Electron rocket from its private spaceport in New Zealand, successfully placing seven spacecraft in orbit for its first commercial launch. With this latest success, the company is solidifying its lead in the burgeoning small rocket industry.

The launch, which Rocket Lab has dubbed the ‘It's Business Time’ mission, saw six satellites deployed for San Francisco CA based Spire Global, Irvine CA based Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Beverley Australia based Fleet Space Technologies and the Irvine CA based Irvine CubeSat STEM program, a collaboration between six high schools in Irvine CA to assemble, test and launch a CubeSat into low Earth orbit.

Also launched was a spacecraft built by München, Germany based HPS GmbH to demonstrate space debris removal technology according to the November 11th, 2018 CNBC post, "Space unicorn Rocket Lab reaches orbit again in key first commercial launch."

Originally scheduled to launch last spring following its successful Jan 2018 test launch, the mission was delayed due to a ‘motor control’ issue with the rocket. launch marks the beginning of Rocket Lab's acceleration toward launching at a weekly rate. 

While taking time to correct the motor control issue, the company made the most of the situation by continuing to build up it’s infrastructure, opening a new factory in New Zealand. Rocket Lab also plans to build a US launchpad in Virginia.

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) OperationallyResponsive Space Office (ORS) to study a low cost space launcher to place nano-satellites into orbit. 

The company’s investors include Palo Alto and San Franscisco CA based Data Collective (DCVC), Chicago IL based Promus Ventures, Menlo Park CA based Bessemer Venture Partners, Menlo Park CA based Khosla Ventures and New Zealand based K1W1 Investments as well as  Bethesda, MD based aerospace behemoth LockheedMartin and the Government of New Zealand

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

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 by 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 is priced at $5.7Mln US ($7.5Mln CDN) per launch.

Rocket Lab’s next launch is scheduled for December, with a further 16 launches planned for 2019. The company will aim for a launch rate of once a month in 2019, followed by once very two weeks, with an ultimate goal of once a week by 2020.

Rocket Lab’s success illustrates how modern technology can now enable even small nations to have their own space launch capability. Canada, a declining space power lacking its own space launch capability, must take this lesson to heart if it is to remain relevant.

Fortunately, there are signs of this occurring, most notably as outlined in the October 23rd, 2018 post, "Those New Maple Leaf Brand Rockets," through the LaunchCanada Rocket Innovation Challenge, an effort being led by rocket engineer Adam Trumpour to establish Canada’s first major rocket competition.

The contest will offer Canadians the opportunity to foster a vibrant private launch industry in the same manner that gave birth to firms like Rocket Lab and SpaceX.

A rising Electron lifts all boats, indeed.
Editors Note: As a postscript to this story, it's worth checking out the November 15th, 2018 Tech Crunch post, "After first commercial launch, Rocket Lab announces $140 million in funding," which noted that "When it rains, it pours. And when you’re a successful space startup, it pours money."
Congratulations, Rocket Lab.  
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

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