Small Satellite Rocket Booster Arrives at New Zealand's First Launch Site

Rocket Lab is one among dozens of companies around the world building rockets to handle an expected boom in demand for small satellite launches.

A small satellite launcher built by Rocket Lab has reached its New Zealand launch site for a debut test run in a few months.

The rocket, called Electron, is one of at least 17 small satellite launchers in development worldwide, a study for the Satellite Industry Association by The Tauri Group shows.

Another study, presented at last year's International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, found at least 29 small boosters in development.

But competition isn't much of a concern Rocket Lab founder and chief technical officer Peter Beck, who started the company in 2006.

"We're turning customers away and we haven't even flown yet," Beck told Seeker.

"I'm not really too concerned about the other launch companies coming along. In my opinion there's plenty for everybody... The biggest thing that we worry about actually is 'Can we build enough?' rather than 'Are there enough customers?'"

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After three test flights, Rocket Lab aims to begin working off a manifest that includes flights for NASA, Planet, Spire and Moon Express, the latter of which is looking for a launch before the end of the year to compete in the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize.

"Every customer is working to deadlines," Beck said.

The first Electon booster arrived at Rocket Lab's privately owned launch site on Wednesday after a nine-hour truck ride from the company's manufacturing facility in Auckland. Rocket Lab's headquarters is in Los Angeles.

The launch site - the first in New Zealand - is located on the tip of Mahia Peninsula, a remote location with little air and marine traffic. The isolation is key to Rocket Lab's goal of flying Electron once a week.

The two-stage, all-composite rocket is powered by 10 3D-printed Rutherford engines burning a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene. Using additive manufacturing (3D printing) techniques simplifies the manufacturing process and cuts costs, the company notes.

The Electron is capable of putting payloads weighing up to about 330 pounds into orbits some 311 miles above Earth. The rocket's base price is about $5 million.

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It will be a several months before the first Electron blasts off for its trial run. The entire launch system, including tracking, range safety and communications, needs to be brought online before the rocket can fly.

Beck intends to work out any problems during three test flights then begin commercial launch services later this year.

"If we have troubles then obviously there will be some delays there," Beck said. "It's important we get this vehicle up and running well."

The Electron isn't the only small satellite launcher to debut this year. Japan's first flight of an experimental cubesat launcher called SS-520-4, failed last month. A reflight is in the works.

Virgin Galactic, a space flight company owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Group, plans to test its air-launched small satellite booster LauncherOne this year. The rocket is under construction in Long Beach, California. Virgin Galactic also is testing a six-passenger, two-pilot suborbital spaceship in Mojave, California.

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