From a small site in Northern Hawke's Bay, space will soon be open for business.


Auckland-based company Rocket Lab is counting down the days until lift-off from a site near Wairoa, where they will regularly launch rockets into outer space.

Although Rocket Lab's founder and chief executive Peter Beck was away on business this week, his spokeswoman said the 'Electron Program' was founded on the belief that small payloads require dedicated small launch vehicles and flexibility not currently offered by traditional rocket systems.

To do so they have created the 10-tonne rocket, Electron, which is capable of sending satellites into space, with the ability to deliver a 150kg payload to a 500km orbit. Launching Electron would use less fuel than a Boeing 737 flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

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"The space industry generates $330 billion annually, and presents a considerable opportunity for New Zealand," she said.

The spokeswoman said they had met many major technical and operational milestones recently.

"We're growing hugely and it's been great for the team to see the vehicle coming together. We have the test programme ahead of us - we will learn a lot in that time, and will overcome technical, logistical and operational challenges."

After an initial test launch later this year, the company plans to launch rockets every month from the Mahia Peninsula site.

When Wairoa was believed to have been one of three contenders for the launch site, the council processed the required resource consent in just seven days.

Ground was broken on the Onenui station site in December last year, and staff, including local contractors, were recruited for site works including a concrete pad, a launch tower for the carbon composite rocket, and a hangar.

The spokeswoman said the launch site development was progressing well.
"The majority of civil works are complete along with upgrades to existing roads and internet infrastructure. We're about to begin commissioning the site - completing and testing the electrical, mechanical and communications infrastructure."

From the small site in Northern Hawke's Bay, Rocket Lab aims to "remove the barriers to commercial space".

Electron has made accessing outer space relatively cheap, costing about US$6 million ($8.4 million) for the 16m tall rocket, a fraction of the average cost of around US$150 million ( $209 million).

Its size is also a fraction of the average rockets it would compete with to take satellites into space. It has been designed to slash the cost of launches through the use of carbon fibre, new battery technology and 3D printing technology to cut weight and costs.

Recently the company qualified Electron's completed upper stage of the two-stage vehicle, which will deliver the satellite to orbit. After successful test fires the company's flagship engine, named Rutherford, has also qualified. The engine, which weighs nearly 23,000kg was designed specifically for Electron.

Now, the spokeswoman said they were working towards qualifying the first stage of the Electron.

"Once that is complete we will look to begin full vehicle testing."

Looking forward, the company aims to increase the number of launches per month.
"Launching multiple rockets every month will mean Rocket Lab launches more rockets than any current launch service provider. It will be a huge accomplishment for the company, and for space access globally," she said.

On any given mission, Electron could blast from Hawke's Bay to space carrying anything from satellites able to monitor illegal fishing, to aiding search and rescue efforts.
In August last year, the company also unveiled its online booking system for carrying "nanosatellites" or CubeSat's into space, meaning customers who wanted to do so could book a spot on Electron from the comfort of their own homes, or using a cellphone.

Through the system, customers could select a date, destination, and position on the rocket for a CubeSat, which can be as small as a 100mm by 100mm cube, and weigh less than 2kg.

They can be used for services including weather monitoring, maritime data gathering, crop optimisation and natural disaster management.

For a spot on Electron, Rocket Lab will charge between US$50,000 and US$90,000 for a single satellite of the smallest size. Prices for the larger 3u size satellite range between US$180,000 and US$250,000.

These could change based on available space and proximity to the launch date.
When launches begin, some will also be missions for international companies which have already signed with Rocket Lab. These include the San Francisco company Moon Express, who are chasing the Google Lunar XPRIZE - a competition to send a privately-funded craft to the moon, travel 500 metres and transmit high-def video and images back to earth.

The equipment of company Spire has already been booked to be transported on up to 12 missions.

They use small satellite platforms to provide weather and maritime data, specialising in maritime surveillance, including search and rescue, combating cargo piracy, and monitoring illegal fishing.

Since the privately funded American company was formed in 2007, it has received financial backing with major investors including The Warehouse founder Sir Stephen Tindall's K1W1 investment fund, global security and aerospace company Lockheed Martin, and Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The company has also received up to $25 million of government funding over five years.

Of the company's impact in Hawke's Bay, and the country, the spokeswoman said: "We're delighted to be able to contribute to the local community who have welcomed our team and supported us in getting set-up.

"New Zealand is home to a lot of engineering and scientific talent, and it is a wonderful opportunity to show that off as well as create more high-tech roles."