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Commercial Space Launch Site Slated for New Zealand

Peter Beck with Electron rocket

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with Electron rocket (Rocket Lab Ltd)

2 July 2015. Rocket Lab Ltd, a company aiming to make orbital space launches frequent and less costly, says it plans to build a launch site in New Zealand, with completion scheduled by the end of 2015. The company says test flights will begin soon after completing construction of the site, with commercial operations planned for later in 2016.

Rocket Lab, headquartered in Los Angeles but operating largely in New Zealand, plans to offer commercial launch services for small satellites in low earth orbit at less than $5 million a launch. Customers for its launch services are expected to be companies and organizations using satellites for weather reporting, crop monitoring, environmental tracking, maritime commerce, Internet transmissions, and GPS services.

The launch site will be located on the Kaitorete Spit, a strip of beach separating Lake Ellesmere (Te Waihora in Maori) from the Pacific Ocean on New Zealand’s south island. Rocket Lab says the site has minimal air and sea traffic nearby, which will help make possible more frequent launches, as many as 100 per year, one of the company’s key business objectives.

Rocket Lab is building two-stage launch rockets it calls Electron fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene, with battery-powered electric motors for its pumping mechanisms. The engine, called Rutherford for the physicist Ernest Rutherford born in New Zealand, uses a propellent that is solid when stored, but becomes viscous under shear force. This capability, says the company, simplifies the design of the engine, offering the performance of solid fuels with the control of liquid fuels. In addition, all primary components in the Rutherford engine are produced with 3-D printing.

Electron is made with carbon composite materials that the company says provides for extra strength while reducing weight, compared to all-metal construction of conventional rockets. Fuel tanks on Electron are also made with carbon composites, which are compatible with the liquid oxygen. Rocket Lab claims the lower weight will make it possible to launch Electron with less fuel than used by a 737 flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Rocket Lab was founded in 2007 by New Zealander Peter Beck. The company conducted some of its early research and development under contract to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), and in partnership with NASA and DoD contractor L2 Aerospace. The company completed two venture funding rounds, securing early financing from Khosla Ventures, and joined in a second round in March 2015 by Bessemer Venture Partners and K1W1 investment fund. Aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin is also investing in the company.

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