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Rocket Lab launch is vote of confidence in small-rocket startups

Rocket Lab launch is vote of confidence in small-rocket startups
Rocket Lab's Electron rocket lifts off Sunday from the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island's east coast. The rocket reached orbit carrying small commercial satellites. (Rocket Lab)

As Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket powered into orbit for the first time on Sunday it not only boosted the fortunes of the Huntington Beach company but also increased confidence in a new kind of dedicated launch vehicle.

Rocket Lab, like several other recent startups, focuses solely on the burgeoning small-satellite market, a sector of the space industry that has become increasingly popular due to cheaper manufacturing and launch costs.

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These satellites currently hitch a ride into space alongside larger payloads on bigger rockets, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9. But the attraction of Rocket Lab and its competitors is that small-satellite makers can dictate their launch time and orbit placement — a boon for companies planning to deploy so-called constellations of hundreds or even thousands of tiny satellites.

With a successful launch and deployment of three small satellites into orbit, Rocket Lab’s weekend test flight is seen by the satellite firms as the realization of the hype about companies dedicated to such launches, said Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International.

On Sunday, Rocket Lab deployed three small satellites: two weather and ship-tracking satellites for data company Spire and one Earth-imaging satellite for Planet, a small-satellite network operator.

“There’s no way you can populate and replenish a constellation if it takes you years to put up satellites, and you can’t control where and when you go,” said David Cowan, a partner at venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners who led investments in Rocket Lab and Spire. “So this entire idea that’s driving space today … it depends on an entirely different launch capability, one that’s small, cheap and frequent. As of this weekend, that’s now a market reality.”

Created in 2006 by New Zealand native Peter Beck, Rocket Lab has collected a wide array of financial backers, including venture capital firm Khosla Ventures and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.

The company has said it relies on 3-D printing for all the primary components of its Rutherford rocket engine and advertises a launch price of about $5.7 million for a launch. The price of a launch on SpaceX’s much larger Falcon 9 rocket, which is aimed at a wider launch market, starts at $62 million.

“It started very modestly several years ago,” said Richard Rocket, chief executive of NewSpace Global, a research firm focused on commercial space companies. “But that it’s proven capable of sending at least some nano-satellites to orbit after only a couple of tests, it’s very impressive.”

Rocket Lab conducted its first test launch in May, when its Electron rocket reached space but didn’t reach orbit after the flight was terminated by range safety officials due to a problem with the ground equipment used to track the launch.

The company launches from its private complex on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, a key aspect of the company’s plan to eventually launch as frequently as once a week. Rocket Lab said it was working toward a launch cadence of about once a month by the end of the year.

Achieving a weekly launch pace so rapidly could be a challenge. Hawthorne-based SpaceX, which has turned around two launches in about 48 hours, managed 18 launches last year — a record for the 16-year-old company.

“While launching multiple times a month is feasible, it’s very difficult to launch every week still in 2018,” Rocket said. “I think that Rocket Lab has a really good shot at being able to do that if they keep things relatively small. Smaller satellites, smaller contracts, the opportunity to increase launch rates is commensurate with that.”

Other small-satellite launch companies are also set to have a busy year.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, based in Long Beach, has said it began qualification for its LauncherOne service and flight tests for its 747-400 carrier aircraft that will launch satellite-tipped rockets from beneath a wing. The company has said the initial flight of LauncherOne is set for the first half of this year.

Tucson-based Vector Launch Inc. is planning to launch its first orbital flight test in July, after previously conducting several flight tests of its Vector-R rocket from as diverse locations as the intersection of two deserted roads at a proposed commercial launch site in southern Georgia.

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Both companies tweeted congratulatory messages to Rocket Lab after Saturday’s launch.

While analysts expect the small-satellite launch market to be competitive, Ostrove said there could be more than enough business to go around.

“At the rate it has been growing, I think there’s going to be a place for a lot of these players in the launch market,” he said. “I think Rocket Lab itself is in a pretty decent place because they were an early company — they sort of have a first-mover advantage.”

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