Rocket Lab steps into spotlight with its first commercial rocket launch

Private commercial space launches are being developed by a slew of companies, but California-based Rocket Lab is endeavoring to move ahead of the competition. The company on Sunday, November 11 achieved a flawless launch from New Zealand’s North Island in a debut commercial mission that successfully deployed a number of small satellites into orbit.

The mission, called “It’s Business Time,” used Rocket Lab’s 17-meter-tall Electron rocket to deploy six small satellites for several private customers, among them Spire Global (tracking ships, aircraft, and weather systems), Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems (tracking weather systems), and Fleet Space Technologies (telecommunications).

Rocket Lab’s New Zealand-born founder and chief executive Peter Beck claimed that the successful mission marks a new era in access to space, with the world “waking up to the new normal.”

“With the Electron launch vehicle, rapid and reliable access to space is now a reality for small satellites,” Beck said on the company’s website following Sunday’s mission.

Lining up alongside the likes of SpaceX in the field of private commercial rocket launches though currently geared solely toward small-satellite deployment, Rocket Lab is aiming for high-frequency launches starting in 2019, using facilities that enable rapid mass Electron production and a private launch complex for as many as 120 missions per year, the company said.

Beck said Rocket Lab has a “burgeoning” customer manifest and is already planning its next mission, scheduled to take place in December 2018 when it will launch a payload of 10 cubesats for NASA’s 19th Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNA 19).

Rapid, reliable, affordable

Rocket Lab’s launch system is designed to provide companies with a rapid, reliable, and affordable path to small-satellite deployment. Its rocket uses nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford main engines, while the second stage comprises a single Rutherford engine.

According to Spaceflight Now, the Electron’s Rutherford engine “uses pumps powered by batteries, an innovation for a liquid-fueled rocket engine,” while all of its main components are 3D-printed, which helps to cut both cost and time of manufacturing.

Rocket Lab completed its test launch in May last year. Eight months later, in what was still essentially a test launch, the company used its rocket to deploy satellites for a number of customers. Sunday’s outing, however, is being hailed as its first full-fledged commercial effort, with the successful mission giving it both the confidence and prominence to enter the market with a high degree of conviction.

Issues overcome

Sunday’s mission was supposed to have taken place in April, but a technical issue with the motor controller meant it wasn’t quite “business time” for the company. A new date was set for June, but this was also scrapped and for the same reason, prompting engineers to tackle the issue more robustly by completely redesigning the component to properly solve the problem.

Rocket Lab says its technology will see “thousands of small satellites reach orbit and feed critical data back to Earth, helping us better monitor our planet and manage our impact on it,” adding that satellites launched using its rocket will perform “vital social and commercial services, including monitoring deforestation, global internet from space, improved weather prediction, and crop monitoring.”

Rival companies such as Spain’s PLD Space and Japan’s Interstellar Technologies are at various stages of development, but Rocket Lab’s success over the weekend has certainly helped it to stand out from the pack.

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