New Zealand is ready to join the space race, with Kiwi start-up Rocket Lab on the brink of launching a rocket to the moon.
After signing a partnership with United States outfit Moon Express in 2015 on a deal to send three rockets to the moon, Peter Beck - who founded Rocket Lab in 2006, said the last major technical questions had now been answered.
Beck said the ambitious project was almost ready to go and test launches were slated for the coming months from the Mahia Peninsula, on the east coast of the North Island between Napier and Gisborne.
"We recently qualified the first stage of the vehicle - this was the last major technical milestone ahead of the first test flight. We're currently completing various final checks and working through international launch licensing," Beck told the Herald from the US, where he is on a routine working visit meeting customers and other industry professionals.
"Rocket Lab has three test launches planned in the coming months followed by several commercial missions - Moon Express is not the first commercial mission. We'll be making further announcements about this once the test flight phase is complete.
"Dates of the commercial launches will be announced following the completion of the test flight programme."
Moon Express, a Silicone Valley-backed company which has completed a $28 million funding drive, wants to mine valuable resources on the moon, where it is believed there could be trillions of dollars-worth of precious metals and gases.
The San Francisco outfit is also chasing the extremely lucrative Google Lunar XPRIZE - a competition to land a privately funded spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 metres and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth.
The competition involves 16 teams from all over the world battling for a $40 million prize purse.
The Kiwis have been contracted by their American partners to handle the launch, with Rocket Lab's world-first, battery-powered rocket engine at the heart of the bid.
Rocket Lab's financial backers include Silicon Valley venture capitalists, Sir Stephen Tindall's K1W1 investment fund and aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin. The company has received up to $25 million of government funding over five years.
Beck says the work is now so advanced, Mars is even on the agenda.
"Moon Express have achieved several significant milestones in the last year. Notably, they have gained permission to be the first private company to travel beyond Earth's orbit - this enables them, and others, to focus on space exploration - particularly of the moon, asteroids and Mars," he said.
"Our team is heavily focused on the test flight programme - we have a comprehensive qualification process that each vehicle goes through ahead of a launch. Once that is complete, we'll look to moving the first vehicle down to Mahia for the test flight.
"It's certainly an exciting time for not only Rocket Lab but also the growing New Zealand space industry."
FLY ME TO THE MOON:
• The moon is 384,403km from Earth.
• Rocket Lab's Electron rocket has a range of 500,000km.
• Electron costs $6.8m.
• The components of Electron's engine are all 3D printed.
• The world-first, battery-powered rocket engine is named the "Rutherford" engine - named after iconic Kiwi physicist Ernest Rutherford.