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Rocket Lab New Zealand

  

Rocket Lab New Zealand

New Zealand is probably not the first country you think of when you talk about rocket launches, but the California based company Rocket Lab has started sending rockets from New Zealand.The US spaceflight startup was founded and is owned by New Zealander Peter Beck, and has set up its main launching base from the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island. After one partially successful launch in May 2017 of the Electron rocket, and a completely successful launch in January 2018, the company is now set to launch commercial flights in 2018.
The Electron is a two stage launch vehicle which uses specifically designed liquid engines on both stages, called Rutherford engines. For a space rocket, these engines are incredibly cheap to produce and are relatively simple, and by using the same engine for both stages, the whole process becomes less complicated. The engines are largely constructed using 3-D printers, and the main body of the rocket is constructed using carbon composite material.
It has been specifically designed to commercially launch satellites into space. It can carry between 150 and 225km of weight to a 500km orbit, and each launch will cost roughly $5 million USD. The Mahia Peninsula is authorised to launch rockets every 72 hours for the next 30 years, and has become the main launch site for Rocket Lab to operate from, declared open in September 2016. This is ideal for CubeSat launches, which are small satellites composed of cubic units and are often used to record information for various companies on the ground. Standing only 55 feet high, it is much smaller than potential competitors, such as SpaceX's Falcon 9, which optimises it for the small satellite market.
The first test flight, appropriately called “it's a test”, launched successfully and made it through the atmosphere and into space, but failed to enter orbit due to an error in communication equipment from the ground. The rocket was safely destroyed. The second test, called “still testing” was launched in January 2018, and successfully achieved orbit. It deposited three CubeSats into orbit as well as one additional satellite, the Humanity Star. Video footage of the launch is available online, complete with a countdown in a heavy kiwi accent.
The Humanity Star was essentially a large disco ball, roughly one metre in diameter, that orbited the earth every 92 minutes for just over two months. The satellite was expected to burn up in the atmosphere after 9 months or orbit, but instead it re-entered the earth's atmosphere in March 2018. While in orbit, it could be tracked using the Heavens-Above website which is used to tell stargazers what they are looking at in the night sky. While some people considered this an act of vandalism or a publicity stunt, others enjoyed spotting the artificial object as it passed over the earth.
The first commercial flight, named “it's business time”, and third flight of the Rocket Lab designed Electron rocket, is scheduled for 2018, with launches expected to increase in frequency over the next few years, with a nearly full manifest booked for the next two years. This opens up a lot of possibilities for development, and an exciting new age for science and technology in New Zealand. This also means that New Zealand is one of only a dozen countries to have successfully launched a rocket into orbit, and that Rocket Lab has become the first company to offer a technically advanced, commercially focussed launchpad and vehicle. Low air traffic and clear skies put New Zealand at an advantage for launching space vehicles.
The website rocketlabusa.com is active and provides information about how to book your satellite launch. Considering each launch costs around $5 million USD, they also offer a “rideshare” possibility, where customers can combine their satellite launch with other customers to reduce the price. The company will be well worth following in the next few years as they continue to develop and grow, and to provide opportunities for kiwi scientists as well as putting New Zealand on the map for space exploration. For now, the website proudly displays a counter of the number of satellites successfully launched, and with customers such as NASA interested in using the service, this number is likely to grow quickly.
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