Kiwi rocket man has 30 launches lined up for $US5m 'Electron'


Chris Keall

Rocket Labs founder Peter Beck with the 18m Electron, scheduled for its first launch in 2015
Electron takes shape at Rocket Labs' facility in Mangere, South Auckland

Rocket Labs founder Peter Beck says his company is building a low-cost launch vehicle, and has 30 commitments for launches.

The Auckland-based, US-controlled company is developing the Electron, which it's billing as the world's first  world-first carbon-composite launch vehicle.

Mr Beck says the Electron will be able to deliver a small satellite into orbit for a price of less than $US5 million, which "represents a drastic cost reduction compared to existing dedicated launch services."

Lots of tech specs are on-hand: Electron is 18m in length, 1m diameter and will weigh more than 10 tonnes. This will be the first vehicle of its class capable of delivering payloads up to 100kg into low Earth orbits (LEO).

The average launch cost today is around $US133 million, Rocket Labs says (albeit with the capability to carry heavier payloads).

Hard details about the commercial launch commitments are thinner on the ground.

Rocket Labs does confirm however, that it does not have a contract with Nasa, the US government space agency that has turned to two private contractors (Space X and Orbital Sciences Corporation) for delivering cargo (and soon astronauts) to the International Space Station.

Last time NBR ONLINE encountered Mr Beck, Rocket Labs was launching a prototype rocket from Sir Michael Fay's Mercury Island lair estate. The actual launch went well and flight went well, but then it all turned to custard as the capsule that fell back to earth, and the flight data it had recorded, could not be located. 

Nevertheless, overall the launch was dubbed a success, and Rocket Labs says it led to contracts with Lockheed Martin, US military agency DARPA and Aeroject Rocket-dyne.

More, it attracted the attention of legendary venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

His Khosla Ventures, which targets companies with potential for $US1 billion or more revenue, is now described as Rocket Labs' "principal funder" (the NZ Companies Office records no more detail than that Rocket Labs NZ is now fully owned by Rocket Labs USA).

Hopefully Mr Khosla won't spirit Rocket Labs off to his home country, as happened with another of his local investments, LanzaTech (the Auckland biofuel company and recipient of $14 milllion in government grants that earlier this year decamped most staff to Illinois).

Mr Beck founded Rocket Labs in 2007 with a vision of eliminating the commercial barriers to space. NBR understands breakthroughs in liquid fuel technology have been a particular point of focus.

He says that rockets have remained prohibitively large and expensive, despite the trend for satellites to become smaller, more capable and affordable. The deficit in launch systems creates a severe barrier for commercial ventures and for the emerging satellite constellation markets.

“The innovation behind Electron will release the limitations on launching small satellites. Our vision at Rocket Lab is to make space commercially viable and more accessible than ever before, doing what the Ford Model T did for consumer automobiles. This technology will really open space for business.

“Along with benefits for commercial enterprises, cheaper and faster space access has the potential to lead to more accurate weather prediction, global high speed Internet access, as well as real-time monitoring of the impacts of human development,” says Beck.

Mr Beck says geographically, New Zealand is in an ideal launch position for a variety of different types of orbits and plans are underway to build a space port on home soil.

“This will bring an innovative and exciting new industry to New Zealand with economic benefits at both a regional and national level. We’re currently considering a shortlist of regions as potential locations for a space port and encourage any region interested to get in touch with us now."

Electron: Fast facts

  • Lift off mass: 10,500kg
  • Propellant mass: 9,200kg
  • Propellants: Liquid oxygen and kerosene
  • Length: 18m
  • Diameter: 1m
  • Top speed: 27,500kph
  • Maximum engine thrust : 146,000 N (14.8 tonnes)
  • Engine equivalent power: 530,000hp
  • Nominal orbit: 500km circular sun synchronous
  • Nominal payload: 110kg

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