Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

Controllers can kill $7m NZ rocket if it goes off course

NZ firm Rocket Lab is prepared if one of its launches goes wrong.
Peter Beck founder and chief executive of Rocket Lab outside the company's Auckland base. Photo / Michael Craig
Peter Beck founder and chief executive of Rocket Lab outside the company's Auckland base. Photo / Michael Craig

Rocket Lab can destroy its $6.7 million rockets if they stray off course after launch from Mahia Peninsula.

The New Zealand-founded company is preparing to test the first of its 17-metre Electron rockets which are propelled into orbit by more than 10 tonnes of kerosene and liquid oxygen.

For test launches there will be an immediate public exclusion zone of three kilometres, in accordance with rules imposed by United States authorities.

Rocket Lab's founder and chief executive Peter Beck said ground controllers could destroy the rocket until it went into orbit, thousands of kilometres away from the launch site, just more than 100km above earth's surface and over the ocean.

"All the safety systems are there to make sure that nobody's going to get hurt," Beck said. "There's a flight termination system. If the vehicle doesn't follow the trajectory that we want; it's terminated."

Typically these systems remotely command the vehicle to self-destruct to prevent it from travelling outside the safety zone.

This allows unburned fuel to ignite at altitude, rather than when the vehicle hits the ground.

There have been a number of uncontrolled explosions on the ground, the most recent being the destruction in Florida of Elon Musk's SpaceX vehicle with Facebook satellites aboard.

Rocket Lab is preparing for the first of three test launches, without commercial satellite cargo, but has not released a firm launch date.

The company aimed to get the first test launch away from the tip of the peninsula before the end of the year.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) looked into every aspect of the launch vehicle, even the people who had designed it.

"It's number one for the FAA and it's number one for Rocket Lab so there are exclusion areas. We close down the air space and the marine space. We limit access to the site. It's a really remote site, anyway," said Beck.

Mission control will be at Rocket Lab's Auckland base near the airport but launch site experts from Alaska Aerospace will be at the range to hit the kill switch if necessary.

The Alaska Aerospace staff and equipment was already FAA licensed.

Mahia Peninsula, south of Gisborne, is known for good fishing, beaches, great surf breaks and is home to about 700 permanent residents.

Greenpeace is worried about the environmental impact from parts of the rocket falling back to Earth and a Facebook page set up by some locals early this year expressed concerns.

Retiree Joe Hedley said while there had been some opposition, 99 per cent of residents supported Rocket Lab.

The company had kept locals constantly informed of developments since gaining access to the sheep and beef farm owned by a Maori incorporation.

Jobs had been created by building a new road to the site and providing other services, Hedley said.

"There's a great feeling of excitement."

The company is playing down expectations in its latest advice to residents.

"Due to the nature of testing creating a likelihood of 'scrubbed' launches, Rocket Lab recommends viewing a launch in the commercial phase (planned for next year) rather than the test phase. We value your time, and wouldn't want to keep you waiting,'' it said.

During the test period, it was assumed planned take-offs would be postponed to be rescheduled to another day, Rocket Lab said.

- NZ Herald

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