This New Goldilocks Rocket Is Juuust Right for Small Satellites

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At 4 pm local time on May 25, Rocket Lab’s Electron stood on the company’s private launch pad on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. Perched on the edge of an eroding cliff, pointing toward the sky from the southern tip of the world, the little rocket—just 56 feet tall and 4 feet wide, meant to carry similarly small satellites—looked ready for its first trip to space.

It was.

Around 30 minutes later, the engines ignited, and water poured over the launch site to protect the pad and quiet the noise. Steam billowed up as the rocket steeled itself to rise. The engines ran for a few seconds while technicians did their checks. And then they released the Electron. It went up, in that slow-at-first way of rockets, taking three seconds to get itself above the four-story launch tower. A minute after launch, it was as high as an Air New Zealand jet, and heading higher.

With this test flight, and two more to follow, the Electron is set to become the first launcher made for, and for sale to, small satellite startups. Historically, little orbiters have had to hitch costly rides on big rockets, which, as the adjectives imply, are meant for big satellites. But having dedicated providers that tailor to their shrunken-down needs means more smallsat companies can get to space better, cheaper, and quicker. If you build a rocket, the payloads will come.

Rocket Lab

New Zealander Peter Beck founded Rocket Lab in 2006. He wanted to bring down the cost of spacefaring by using small, lower-cost rockets. “Right from Day 1, we were all about how we can make space more accessible,” says Beck, “whether that be through sounding rockets or orbital vehicles.”

The market Rocket Lab is now going for didn’t really exist in its beginnings. In the company’s first year, fewer than 20 CubeSats went to space. The same was true in 2009, when Rocket Lab tested its first suborbital rocket, the Atea-1. A year later, the CubeSat count stayed sub-20, but Rocket Lab won a government contract to study the viability of a little launch vehicle. By 2014, the world was readier: More than 120 CubeSats went into space, and soon Rocket Lab had a $6.9 million NASA contract to develop its rocket and do a demo flight.

That number now seems small. The company just raised $75 million of venture capital, achieving one-horned status: Someone thinks they are worth more than $1 billion.

Rocket Lab has been putting its cash to good use, ginning up the Electron rocket and a private launch site in a place that—let’s be honest—is a lot prettier than Cape Canaveral. From the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, the company can (legally) launch 100 rockets to space a year, and it’s allowed to blast off once every three days. With a 3-D printed engine and a small stature (really, it’s just 8.5 NBA players stacked on top of each other and filled with fuel), Rocket Lab can make and spark up its Electrons much faster and more often than anyone can an Atlas V.

And with this successful test rocket—named “It’s A Test,” following in the grand space tradition of straightforward nomenclature (black hole, Very Large Array)—the company is nearly ready to do so. “This is the beginning of the flight test program,” says Beck. “It’s the end of four years of R&D and testing on the ground. From a more personal level, its a really significant milestone to actually get a vehicle on the pad. Not many people make it there.”

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Light ’Em Up

Still, Rocket Lab’s legal launch rate sounds crazy. In the whole of 2016, all countries and companies together managed just 85 orbital launches. And one company thinks it might need a permit for 100? OK. Dream on, dreamweaver.

But the world might actually have room for that many miniature rockets. And Rocket Lab has company in its quest to create them. Vector, whose first public customer is the orbital radar-maker Iceye, is a similar rocket start-up. Others come with big backing: Virgin Galactic just spun off Virgin Orbit, whose LauncherOne will make at least 39 trips to space for would-be internet provider OneWeb. The industry already has fallen soldiers, too: Firefly Space Systems, which got the same NASA grant as Rocket Lab, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. And SpaceX meant its very first vehicle, the diminutive Falcon 1, to rip open the smallsat industry. But coming as it did in 2008, the entry was premature. SpaceX retired its early bird and focused, later, on selling rideshares.

The smallsat makers—whose creations will mostly take pictures of Earth and provide space-based internet, making up a projected $22 billion industry in a decade—are ready for their special rockets. They have cut their own costs by shrinking their satellites, but right now they have to pay for expensive tickets on outsized rockets. And they share the ride as second-class citizens, stuffed in among the more substantial payloads those rockets are actually meant for. The substantial stuff determines where the rockets go, and those orbits are often suboptimal for smallsats. But they must follow the big satellites’ money. Either that or a company can buy its own behemoth rocket—at a cost of $30 to $60 million—and then try to get other people to ride along and chip in for gas money.

Frankly, everyone is sick of it. “This geospatial revolution is happening, but access to space is critically important,” Jason Andrews, CEO of Spaceflight Industries, told me at the Space Symposium, a yearly gathering of companies and governments with business off-Earth. “The technology has changed, the size of the spacecraft has shrunk, but the size of the launch vehicles hasn’t.”

Until, of course, now. That’s why Spaceflight bought its own Electron rocket, which costs around $5 million, on May 17. Spaceflight books launches for satellite makers and sets them up with rideshares if they so desire. They already own one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, and now they have this. “We purchased the Electron to accommodate customers with payloads who need to reach less common orbits that are not routinely served today,” says company president Curt Blake.

That’s an option the satellite companies themselves—like Planet, which currently operates the solar system’s biggest group of Earth-observing orbiters—also like the sound of. “Small-size payloads will be able to purchase the entire Electron rocket and have complete control over when it launches and to what orbit,” says Mike Safyan, Planet’s director of launch. “This further lowers the barrier to entry for small satellite companies, allowing many more new ideas to be deployed into space on software startup budgets.”

Others who have jumped over the barrier and signed on as Electron customers in one way or another include NASA itself; Spire, which will track ships and talk about the weather; and Moon Express, which wants to go to the moon, expressly.

All of those organizations were likely watching as the very first Electron heaved itself from the launch pad, jumped up an energy level, and became not just a little rocket that could but one that understood what they needed and gave it to them.

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