Last updated February 8, 2018 at 10:41 am
Innovative space company provides a cost-effective solution to get tiny cubesats into orbit on time and on budget.
Rocket Lab has achieved the near impossible – a successful launch of three satellites into orbit with its 3D-printed Electron rocket on just its second test launch. Superpowers would be proud of this achievement, far less a small start-up company with around 200 employees.
The new launch provider joins a crowded marketplace with dominant players such as Orbital ATK and SpaceX, but sensibly Rocket Lab has focussed on a unique selling point – launching cubesats.
These are a new class of tiny basketball-sized nanosats that can be just as powerful as older satellites as big as a bus, thanks to the use of microelectronics developed for mobile phones.
As the cubesats are lighter, the rockets can also be smaller (in Rocket Lab’s case just 17 metres long) and hence cheaper.
The cheapest way to get into space
In fact, at $5 million per launch, Rocket Lab provides the cheapest way to get to space, just a tenth of the cost of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch which towers above it at 70 metres in height.
Cubesats have previously had to hitch a ride in the gaps between larger satellites inside the Falcon 9 payload space, which meant they had no say on when they would launch.
As Rocket Lab wants to launch an Electron rocket every second week, each capable of carrying up to 150 kg (potentially a dozen cubesats) to 500 km-high orbits, customers can be launched almost “on demand”.
But it’s not just the size that makes Rocket Lab offering so cheap, it’s also the combination of new technologies and materials that a 21st century rocket company gets to use.
3D-printed rocket reduces manufacturing costs
The Electron rocket is nearly entirely 3D-printed, with those few separate pieces fused together using electron beam welding, as well as battery-powered pumps to mix the fuel instead of expensive and heavy traditional pumps.
All of this makes it easier, cheaper and faster to build than ever before, as well as test new designs.
The future in space is small. And it’s beautiful. That it is launching from New Zealand should only be an incentive for Australia to be bold in developing its own Space Agency and supporting the growing Australian space industry.