How does a private space company that is ready to launch payloads into Earth orbit get a break around here? While Elon Musk talks about going to Mars in ten years, his SpaceX private orbital launch facility in Texas is ready yet. And Jeff Bezos brags about Blue Origin, but private launch facility in Texas has only been used for suborbital flights. Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab has completed its orbital launch facility in New Zealand and is ready to start putting satellites into orbit as frequently as every 72 hours.
Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 is located on New Zealand’s remote Mahia Peninsula which has very little air traffic to interfere with launches. The complex is the home of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, which is designed to carry a 150 kg (330 lb) payload to a 500 km (310 mile) orbit with inclinations anywhere from 39 degrees to sun-synchronous – a geocentric orbit that passes over any given point on Earth at the same local solar time. The 50-ton launch platform tilts forward to lift the rocket to the vertical launch position.
CEO Peter Beck says Rocket Lab will begin tests soon and, while the facility is capable of launches every 72 hours, will probably start with one per week. Expected customers include companies and organizations needing satellites for crop monitoring, weather reporting, internet access, search-and-rescue services and more.
Rocket Lab was founded by Beck in 2006 and appears to have had limited and somewhat secretive success with a previous suborbital launch in 2009 which the company claimed was the first private launch in the Southern Hemisphere but could not be verified by flight data because the rocket had no downlink and was not recovered.
The Electron rocket is a two-stage vehicle that uses unique battery-powered fuel pumps to feed nine Rutherford engines made mostly with 3D printing. This helps make the total estimated cost of an individual launch at lass that $5 million.
Rocket Lab’s limited success with suborbital launches may have something to do with its lack of attention by the media – space or otherwise. Or perhaps Peter Beck may not be a camera hound like Musk and Bezos. Whatever the case, it will get more publicity once it launches the promised first private orbital payload by the end of 2016.