• New Zealand space launch is first from a private site

    25 May 2017

    An American company has launched a rocket into space from New Zealand, the first from a private launch facility. Rocket Lab’s 17m (56ft) Electron rocket took off from the Mahia Peninsula, in North Island, the firm said.

    The test flight was the first launch ever from New Zealand and is a major first step in an emerging market; launching cheap disposable rockets to carry small satellites and other cargo. The company plans to start frequent commercial launches later this year. Rocket Lab’s founder and chief executive Peter Beck is from New Zealand.

    Poor weather conditions had pushed the launch into the fourth day of a 10-day window and the Electron finally took off at 16:20 local time (04:20 GMT). The test launch, one of three planned, did not carry any actual cargo, but Rocket Lab says eventually the Electron rocket will carry 150kg (331lbs) into orbit. 

    Why is the launch significant? Private and commercial rocket launches are becoming more and more common – the most famous example being Elon Musk’s SpaceX. But SpaceX builds huge rockets aimed at following in the footsteps of Nasa missions, delivering cargo to the international space station and eventually sending man to Mars.

    Rocket Lab’s Electron is entirely different. Its goal is to launch what, by comparison, is a tiny rocket for a fraction of the price. That means that launches can be more frequent and a lot cheaper.

    The launch site is located on North Island’s Mahia peninsula

    There is a growing market for small satellites and so-called cubesats – small rectangular boxes that may weigh only a few kilos which are used, for instance, to gather pictures of Earth and weather data. Currently, the only way of getting these into orbit is by hitching a ride on a big rocket as a secondary payload.

    What kind of a rocket is the Electron? The Electron is 17m long and 1.2m in diameter.

    While the maximum payload is 225kg, it is designed to carry only 150kg into low orbit – between 300km (186 miles) and 500km above earth. Just to put this into perspective: SpaceX’s current Falcon rocket is a towering 70m and can carry 22,800kg into low orbit.

    According to Rocket Lab, each launch costs around $5m (£3.85m) and the rocket is made entirely of carbon-composite and cannot be re-used. The firm has developed its own partly 3-D printed engine for the project.

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