New Zealand launches into space race with 3D-printed rocket


Rocket Lab, a Silicon Valley-funded space launch company, on Thursday launched the maiden flight of its Electron rocket from New Zealand’s remote Mahia Peninsula.
“Made it to space. Team delighted,” Rocket Lab said on its official Twitter account.

However, the 17 metre long Electron rocket did not quite reach orbit. “We’ll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our programme, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business,” chief executive Peter Beck said.

Rocket Lab hopes to launch payloads up to 150 kg into 500 km high orbits.

The successful launch of a low cost, 3D-printed rocket is an important step in the commercial race to bring down financial and logistical barriers to space while also making New Zealand an unlikely space hub.

The Los Angeles and New Zealand-based rocket firm has touted its service as a way for companies to get satellites into orbit regularly.
“Our focus with the Electron has been to develop a reliable launch vehicle that can be manufactured in high volumes – our ultimate goal is to make space accessible by providing an unprecedented frequency of launch opportunities,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and chief executive in a statement.

The firm had spent the past four years preparing for the test launch and last week received the go-ahead from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which is monitoring the flight.

Bad weather had delayed the rocket from taking off three times this week.

New Zealand has created new rocket legislation and set up a space agency in anticipation of becoming a low-cost space hub.

Ships and planes need re-routing every time a rocket is launched, which limits opportunities in crowded U.S. skies, but New Zealand, a country of 4 million people in the South Pacific, has only Antarctica to its south. The country is also well-positioned to send satellites bound for a north-to-south orbit around the poles.

Rocket Lab is one of about 30 companies and agencies worldwide developing small satellite launchers as an alternative to firms jostling for space on larger launches or paying around $50 million for a dedicated service. The company said in a statement it has now received $148 million in funding and is valued in excess of $1 billion.

Rocket Lab’s customers include NASA, earth-imaging firm Planet and startups Spire and Moon Express.

The firm will carry out two more tests before it starts commercial operations, slated to begin toward the end of this year.