Rocket Lab is aiming to open a new era of space access with today’s launch

Nothing like the smell of rocket fuel in the morning.
Nothing like the smell of rocket fuel in the morning.
Image: Rocket Lab/Handout
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The Electron rocket has gone to space once before, but the company that built it says today’s launch validates its plans to offer regular commercial service to orbit for small satellites—a goal that governments and companies have sought to realize for decades.

Rocket Lab says that if the mission, cheekily called “It’s Business Time,” is successful, it will begin flying rockets every month, moving to a cadence of every other week in 2019. That’s music to the ears of companies pouring millions into the design and construction of new satellite constellations.

“It’s great to go to orbit, [but] that’s not the problem we’re trying to solve here,” founder and CEO Peter Beck tells Quartz. “This is the beginning of a whole new era for the small satellite industry and hopefully for the space industry. The industry just desperately requires access to space. There’s lots of small satellites sitting on the shelf that are waiting to get on orbit.”

The launch window opens at 12:30pm New Zealand time (8:30pm US Eastern Time), where the company maintains its proprietary launch site. You can watch the launch starting 20 minutes ahead of time on this livestream:

Delays are always a factor in the rocket business, which is one reason the company has reserved four-hour launch windows for the next two weeks. A previous attempt scheduled to begin in April was scrubbed after engineers identified problems with electrical components that control engine thrust.

The Electron rocket is 17 meters tall, a little less than a quarter the size of Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. It’s designed to carry a 150-kg (330-lb) payload into orbit. Costing less than $6 million per launch, it is not as cheap by mass as the leading commercial rocket but the company expects to win customers by targeting small satellite companies explicitly and promising on-demand service.

The last launch delay allowed the company to demonstrate some of its potential by adding two bonus payloads to the mission. In addition to its scheduled cargo of weather- and ship-tracking satellites built by Spire Global and an Earth-observation satellite built for GeoOptics Inc., the rocket will also launch an experiment that will demonstrate a drag-sail to pull satellites out of orbit, and a satellite built by high-school students in Irvine, California.

Beck says the additions show the company can prep satellites for launch in weeks, not months.  “We’ve been working very closely with a lot of the licensing bodies in America—the FAA, FCC— and the New Zealand space agency,” he told Quartz. “These spacecraft can be licensed rapidly, the way that we’ve developed a whole integration flow is that we’re able to manifest these spacecraft on very quickly.”

The first Electron reached orbit in January 2018, following a failed mission in 2017. In the 2018 mission, the company launched satellites for private companies, as well as a satellite constructed in-house that was designed to create a temporary star in the sky. The “Humanity Star” wasn’t as globally visible as its builders hoped or its critics feared. Quartz has been assured there are no secret payloads on this flight.

More important than stunts is the firm’s business plan: While its rockets are not reusable, they rely on carbon-fiber construction, 3D-printed manufacturing and lightweight electronic components to drive the cost of each launch down. In 2017, Rocket Lab raised $75 million from Silicon Valley investors who valued the company at $1 billion.

The company’s next mission to fly a series of experimental satellites for NASA, in what is expected to be the first launch of a “venture class”—read, small and privately built—rocket for the US space agency.