Last Sunday afternoon in New Zealand, Rocket Lab successfully made it into orbit on just the company's second flight attempt. Launching from a new spaceport that juts into the South Pacific Ocean, the Electron rocket climbed into orbit and deployed its customer payloads at 8 minutes and 31 seconds after lifting off.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era in commercial access to space. We’re thrilled to reach this milestone so quickly after our first test launch,” Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck said in a statement. “Our incredibly dedicated and talented team have worked tirelessly to develop, build and launch Electron. I’m immensely proud of what they have achieved today.”
The Electron vehicle made its maiden flight last May, but although that rocket reached outer space, it failed to go into orbit around the planet. Now the Electron vehicle has done so, and with the deployment of a Dove Pioneer Earth-imaging satellite for Planet and two Lemur-2 satellites for weather and ship tracking company Spire, Rocket Lab has become the first of a slew of new small-satellite launch companies to reach orbit. Other firms, including Virgin Orbit and Vector Space Systems, say they will as well this year. There is a growing market that these companies aim to serve for launching smaller commercial and government satellites on demand, to specific orbits.
The Electron rocket is a relatively small vehicle, at 17 meters tall and with a diameter of 1.2 meters. Nine oxygen-kerosene "Rutherford" engines power the vehicle, each with 34,500 pounds of thrust (about 153kN) at liftoff. (That is a little less than one-fifth the thrust of each of the nine Merlin 1-D engines that power SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket). When it reaches operational status, the rocket will be able to send up to 150kg to a Sun-synchronous orbit 500km above the Earth.
After this weekend's launch, the company said its next launch would take place in "early 2018." Rocket Lab presently is building five additional Electron launch vehicles, and already has signed up customers like NASA, Spire, Planet, Moon Express, and Spaceflight. Eventually, the company plans to launch more than 50 times a year.
In an interview with Ars late in 2017, Beck said Rocket Lab is still learning how to launch. "I think anybody working on the second flight of a vehicle who thinks it is old hat is putting on a very brave face," he said. "Look, it’s still a test flight, and its very important step to move into commercial operations." After this weekend, Rocket Lab is a lot closer to that.
Listing image by Rocket Lab