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Rocket Lab's Electron rocket zooms into orbit in 2018.
Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket zooms into orbit.
FIRST UP

This small rocket’s first flight to orbit is a big deal for on-demand spaceflight

By Tim Fernholz

Investors are pumping millions into small satellite start-ups, but they’ve run into delays actually getting the satellites into orbit. The first orbital launch of the small Electron rocket may herald the end of that problem.

Built by a US company called Rocket Lab, the 17-meter-tall Electron rocket successfully blasted off from its private New Zealand spaceport on Jan. 21, carrying cubesats for Planet and Spire, two venture-backed remote-sensing operations.

The rocket is named “Still Testing,” and this was its second test flight; the first, in May 2017, did not make it to orbit. Now, the small rocket, designed to carry between 150 kg and 225 kg into space, could start regular launches in the months ahead. The company says it has five rockets in production right now, with an eventual goal of ramping up to 50 launches a year.

The most successful rocket companies, like SpaceX, Arianespace and ULA, fly rockets more than twice as tall as the Electron. They carry several tons of cargo into space a dozen or so times a year; SpaceX set a commercial record with eighteen launches in 2017. Most launches are paid for by large satellite operators, with smaller satellites filling in as secondary cargo.

But delays and costs with large-scale launches have created an opportunity for companies looking to build an on-demand rocket that can launch lighter cargo more frequently. Companies like Planet, which operates a constellation of tiny satellites that takes a picture of the entire earth each day, or OneWeb, which hopes to launch hundreds of 200 kg satellites to beam internet access around the world, will be happy to pay about $6 million per launch to get their satellites in operation on their own schedules.

Rocket Lab has already signed deals with NASA and Moon Express, which hopes to use the small rocket to send a robot to the lunar surface. Last year, Rocket Lab raised $75 million, earning a valuation from its investors of $1 billion.

Rocket Lab’s success is also a sign of the maturation of the private rocket industry. Its major competitors are Virgin Orbit, a Richard Branson-funded plan to launch satellites on rockets from the bottom of a converted jet liner, and Vector, a small rocket company founded by two veteran space engineers. Those two firms are promising debut flights this year.

Still, space is hard: When SpaceX was founded in 2002, it took six years to develop and successfully launch its Falcon 1 rocket, a vehicle comparable to the Electron. It has taken Rocket Lab almost a decade to get to this flight, since CEO Peter Beck began developing a prototype vehicle in 2008. The Electron, however, is an advanced vehicle, boasting a carbon fiber skin, a battery-powered turbopump and 3-D printed engine parts.

The other impetus for engineers to develop small launch vehicles is military interest; Rocket Lab began in part as project for DARPA, the US national security research lab. US military strategists are eager to launch small satellites at will to spy on enemies; in particular, the threat of North Korea’s missile program has spurred new public investments in radar satellites, but they’ll need to get into space on rockets like the Electron.

Tim Fernholz
Reporter
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