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.
Have you ever read a software patent? They’re laborious things to read often starting out by describing at length their claims and then attempting to substantiate them all with even more colourful and esoteric language. They do this not out of some sick pleasure they get from torturing people who dare to read them but because the harder it is to compare it to prior art the better chance it has of getting through. Whilst a Dynamic Resolution Optimizer Algorithm might sound like something new and exciting it’s quite likely that it’s an image resizer, something that is trivial and has tons of prior art but, if such a patent was granted, would give the owner of it a lot of opportunity to squeeze people for licensing fees.
Indeed this kind of behaviour, patenting anything and everything that can be done in software, is what has allow the patent troll industry to flourish. These are companies that don’t produce anything, nor do they use their patents for their intended purpose (I.E. a time limited monopoly to make use of said patent), and all they do is seek licensing fees from companies based who are infringing on their patent portfolio. The trouble is with the patent language being so deliberately obtuse and vague it’s nigh on impossible for anyone creating software products to not infringe on one of them, especially if they’re granted for things which the wider programming community would believe would be obvious and trivial. It’s for this reason that I and the vast majority of people involved in the creation of software oppose patents like these and it seems finally we may have the beginnings of support from governmental entities.
The New Zealand parliament just put the kibosh on software patents in a 117-4 vote. The language of the bill is a little strange essentially declaring that any computer program doesn’t classify as an invention however any computer application that’s an implementation of a process (which itself can be patented) is patentable. This legislation is also not retroactive which means that any software patents granted in New Zealand prior to its passing will remain in effect until their expiry date. Whilst this isn’t the kind of clean sweep that many of us would have hoped for I think it’s probably the best outcome we could realistically hope for and the work done in New Zealand will hopefully function well as a catalyst for similar legislation to be passed elsewhere.
Unfortunately the place that it’s least likely to happen in is also the place where it’s needed the most: the USA. The vast majority of software patents and their ensuing lawsuits take place in the USA and unfortunately the guaranteed way of avoiding infringement (not selling your software there) means cutting out one of the world’s largest markets. The only way I can see the situation changing there is if the EU passed similar laws however I haven’t heard of them attempting to do anything of the sort. The changes passed in New Zealand might go a ways to influence them along the same lines, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
So overall this is a good thing however we’re still a long way off from eradicating the evils of software patents. We always knew this would be a long fight, one that would likely take decades to see any real progress in, but the decision in New Zealand shows that there’s a strong desire from the industry for change in this area and people in power are starting to take notice.