Elon Musk’s SpaceX isn’t the only startup building rockets on the cheap in Southern California. Huntington Beach-based Rocket Lab has been refining its Electron rocket over the past few years. Now the company is ready to get down to business with its own unique approach to the 21st-century space race.
First off, it’s important to realize Rocket Lab isn’t trying to compete directly with the likes of the really big rocket makers like SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance. In fact, Lockheed Martin — half of the joint venture that makes up ULA (Boeing is the other partner) — has also invested in Rocket Lab, which was founded in 2006.
Instead of aiming to launch big heavy satellites or cargo missions destined for the International Space Station like the SpaceX Falcon 9, Rocket Lab’s Electron is meant to lift smaller satellites to orbit.
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While SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin have garnered much of the attention in the new commercial space race, there’s been another race in the background to build smaller, cheaper rockets for smaller payloads. Rocket Lab is about to get a sizable leg up on its competition, which includes Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, Firefly Aerospace and others still trying to get off the ground.
But like SpaceX, the company is aiming to launch frequently and using technological advances to do so much more cheaply. While Musk’s company has driven down the cost of getting to space by building most things in-house and recycling rockets, Rocket Lab’s approach involves using lightweight composite materials, 3D printing and novel electric fuel pumps.
After years of development and a few test launches, the Electron rocket is finally ready to carry out its first fully commercial mission from the company’s launch facility in New Zealand.
A two-week launch window for a set of payloads the company calls “It’s Business Time” begins around midday Saturday in New Zealand, which will be 5:30 p.m. Friday Pacific Time. The Electron rocket will be carrying four small commercial satellites and a demonstration unit for a drag sail designed to take old small satellites out of orbit.
The four satellites belong to Spire Global, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, and the Irvine CubeSat STEM Program.
The company has also lined up a number of other customers for future missions, including Canon Electronics and BlackSky, which aims to combine satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to keep a close eye on natural disasters, business operations and just about anything else.
The hope is that Rocket Lab will be launching monthly by the end of this year, ramping up to a launch every two weeks in 2019 and eventually as frequently as every 72 hours.
CEO and founder Peter Beck says another part of the company’s pitch is an unprecedented turnaround time.
“A customer can come to us seeking a ride to orbit and we can have them booked to launch in weeks,” Beck said in a release in May.
But all that is still in Rocket Lab’s future, which depends on the success of this first commercial launch.
Like SpaceX, Rocket Lab will be live-streaming its launch via its website, with the show set to begin about 15 minutes before the opening of the launch window.