Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

Rocket Lab's big leap: Test vehicle moved to launch site on Mahia Peninsula

Rocket Lab's first Electron vehicle has arrived at its launch site between Napier and Gisborne in what the New Zealand company says is an important milestone for the space industry.

The historic test launch will take place in ''the coming months'', dependent on equipment testing and weather on the Mahia Peninsula.

Pre-flight checks would now start on the 17m tall rocket - with a call sign chosen by staff: ''It's a Test.''

"It's an important milestone for our team and for the space industry, both in New Zealand and globally. In past, it's been countries that go to space, not companies," said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and chief executive.

''I'm immensely proud of the team it's a great effort by a group of incredible people."

The rocket was taken by truck in two climate-controlled containers to the Mahia Peninsula from Rocket Lab's manufacturing base near Auckland Airport. Launch Complex 1 is at the tip of the peninsula, about 90km south of Gisborne.

The launch will be the first orbital launch attempt from New Zealand. It is the first of three planned test launches before Rocket Lab begins providing customers commercial satellite launches.

Launch windows of several days will be announced but Rocket Lab is worried sightseers may be disappointed if launches are postponed or scrubbed due to weather or technical modifications to the vehicle.

"We understand the desire everyone has to get out there and watch," said Beck. "History has shown with any test launch programme that there is a likelihood of scrubs. We value everyone's time, and wouldn't want people waiting around for us."

The rocket makes use of new technologies such as including 3D printing of engine parts and carbon-composite structures similar to that in the fuselages of new-generation aircraft.

Customers wil pay about $6.8 million per launch - relatively inexpensive by international standards - made possible by frequent missions and a cheaper launch vehicle.

Sparse air traffic around Mahia, where the only regular international flight is a LATAM airlines Dreamliner heading for Chile and back, means clearing air space is not a major issue compared to launch sites in other countries.

"Since we commenced this project three years ago, our team has accomplished an incredible amount - the vehicle has gone through rigorous qualification and acceptance testing and we've pushed the limits of many technologies,'' said Beck.

Rocket Lab will use Electron to launch satellites used to house imaging and communications technologies. Rocket Lab's customers use these satellites to provide services including optimised crop monitoring, improved weather reporting, Internet from space, natural disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data and search-and-rescue services.

Customers signed to fly on Electron include Nasa, Planet, Spire and Moon Express.

The vehicle is capable of delivering payloads of up to 150kg to a 500km sun-synchronous orbit; the target range for the high-growth constellation-satellite market.

Rocket Lab was founded in 2006 by Peter Beck and in 2009 launched Atea 1.

The company has its registered headquarters in Los Angeles.

The New Zealand government has invested $25m over five years, with backing also from Sir Stephen Tindall's K1W1 Ltd, and also massive Silicon Valley funding and support from Lockheed Martin.

- NZ Herald

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