July 26, 2017

Rocket Lab USA’s Electron Rocket Lights Up New Zealand Skies

The inaugural flight of the Electron Rocket.

Credit: Rocket Lab USA

There’s a new player in the space launch business in town. No, we’re not talking about SpaceX, or even Blue Origin or Orbital Sciences or the numerous myriad of other private start-ups hoping to make it into space.

We’re talking about Rocket Labs USA, whose innovative Electron rocket made a brief sub-orbital flight earlier this week, from the very first privately-owned space port Mahia Peninsula Launch Complex 1 located on the eastern tip of the north island of New Zealand earlier this week.

True, this first launch failed to reach orbit, but you have to remember that space is hard, and SpaceX’s very first Falcon 1 launch barely cleared the beach. The two-stage, carbon composite rocket went through staging and fairing separation as planned and reached an undefined apogee above the 100 kilometer Kármán Line three minutes later before atmospheric reentry. A sub-orbital splashdown isn’t quite a “Sputnik moment” for Rocket Labs, but it’s darned close. Check out this video to see what all of the excitement is about:

The Electron rocket lifted off from the New Zealand Launch Complex 1 Space Center at 4:20 Universal Time on Thursday, May 25th. Rocket Lab aims to put a boiler plate test mass in orbit on the next shot, scheduled for later this year. The firm hopes to launch commercial payloads after two more test launches. This is a huge step; remember, companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are sending spacecraft to the International Space Station under NASA government contract, while Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Rocket Labs are privately funded.

What’s next? Well, located at latitude 39 degrees south, the New Zealand launch site is ideal to place satellites in retrograde and sun-synchronous Earth-observing orbits, similar to the USAF’s Vandenberg launch site. This is a favorite placement for Earth-observing and military spy satellites, though we don’t think we’ll see any privately funded super-villains orbiting their own spy sats anytime soon. Rocket Lab plans on lofting an amazing 50 payloads a year once they get up to full steam… and remember, the U.S. completed 22 launches in 2016, and there were 82 launches worldwide last year.

This week’s launch was low key, with information and updates trickling out over Twitter. Hopefully, the company will start providing live webcasts of launches soon. Rocket Lab USA is the new space startup that you’re not watching, but should be!

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