The southern hemisphere isn’t much of a haven for the space industry. Some might say this is due to a lack of desirable launch sites (as the closer you are to the equator the bigger boost you get from the Earth’s rotation) however it’s more due to the economies just not being big enough to support them. I’ve often argued that Australia would make an ideal place to test innovative space technologies, mostly thanks to the large swaths of land that we have which aren’t good for much else, but we’ve only taken the first few cautious steps towards making Australia a space faring nation. However despite all this it appears that a New Zealand company, called Rocket Lab, is poised to kick start the space industry in the asia pacific region.
Rocket Lab was founded back in 2007 and was initially a producer of sounding rockets used to get small payloads to just beyond the edge of space. They made their first successful launch of their Ātea-1 craft in 2009 which then led onto them winning additional business overseas for various parts of the technology they’d developed as part of that program. The Ātea-1 was interesting because it was an all composite craft, being built out of carbon fibre rather than the more traditional metal structures that we see today. Whilst it doesn’t appear that the Ātea-1 has since been used in a commercial aspect Rocket Lab’s initial success attracted enough funding for them to pursue a bigger goal: a rocket capable of achieving orbital velocities.
The result of the last 5 years or so of research have resulted in what Rocket Lab are calling Electron, a scaled up version of their initial demonstration rocket that’s capable of putting at 110KG payload into a 500KM low earth orbit. The revolutionary thing they’re proposing with their rocket, apart from the construction, is a total launch cost of just under $5 million, a fraction of what it costs today. Whilst this might not be the sexiest of endeavours when it comes to space it is by far one of the most useful, especially when it comes to science missions that might not be able to afford the space on a larger craft. If they’re able to deliver on this then they’ll be in a market that’s woefully underserved, meaning there’s potential for a large revenue stream.
The two major competitors in this area are (or were) SpaceX’s Falcon 1 and the Orbital Sciences Pegasus. Unfortunately it seems that SpaceX has discontinued production of the Falcon 1 rocket in favour of launching multiple payloads aboard a Falcon 9 instead. This is actually good news for Rocket Lab as the Falcon 1 was in the same ballpark in terms of price ($6.7 million in 2007) with a slightly larger payload. The Pegasus on the other hand is still a cheap rocket comparatively, going for $11 million a launch, however its payload capacity is 4 times greater making it a much better bang for buck by comparison. Looking at the launch time frames however the Pegasus rarely launches more than twice a year which is where Electron will have it beat if it can deliver on its weekly launch schedule.
Unfortunately it doesn’t look like Rocket Lab has a hard date set for the first launch of Electron so we’ve probably still got a little bit of waiting ahead of us before we see the first of these blast off into space. Still the technology they’ve developed is quite novel and should they be able to deliver on their current promises there’s a bright future ahead of them in the small satellite market. Whether they then translate this into a grander vision of bigger rockets with all composite constructions will remain to be seen but for me I’m just excited to see the private space industry start to take off.
Even if it’s in my neighbour’s backyard, and not mine.