And, we are (almost) go for Kiwi Rocket launch in northern Hawke's Bay

SIMON HENDERY/STUFF.CO.NZ

Rocket Lab operations manager Shane Fleming at the company's Mahia Peninsula launch site in northern Hawke's Bay.

Sometime early this year, a large truck carrying a 17-metre-long rocket will rumble down a winding dirt road on a remote coastal sheep station in northern Hawke's Bay.

Behind razor wire fences at the tip of Mahia Peninsula, the rocket will be unloaded and prepared for launch.

Sheep in neighbouring paddocks will be mustered away and an army of scientists and engineers will retreat three kilometres up an inland rise to "range control" where they will huddle in front of a bank of computers and monitors.

ROCKET LAB

Rocket launch platform arrives

Down the hill at the cleared-out launch site, 20,000 litres of highly flammable liquid oxygen will be pumped automatically into the rocket's fuel tanks and – assuming all goes well – New Zealand will take a giant leap forward in the space business.

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The launch will be the first of three test flights by Rocket Lab, a 10-year-old company founded by one-time Fisher & Paykel toolmaker Peter Beck.

Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck with the company's Electron rocket which will be transported from its Auckland ...
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck with the company's Electron rocket which will be transported from its Auckland headquarters to the Mahia Peninsula launch site.

The company is on the verge of breaking into the burgeoning global business of satellite launching.

Rocket Lab's goal is to offer cheap, frequent launches into low-orbit space ahead of others who are trying to get similar ventures off the ground.

Beck says the small satellite industry has grown by "hundreds of per cent" over recent years and is the strongest growth area in the space industry.

Rocket Lab completes qualification and acceptance testing of the first stage booster of the Electron launch vehicle in ...
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Rocket Lab completes qualification and acceptance testing of the first stage booster of the Electron launch vehicle in December 2016.

"As that continues to strengthen, so does the need and the requirement for access to space, which is ultimately what we're aiming to provide," he said.

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"The traditional large players in the space industry are already being severely challenged by the new space activities. The large incumbents that have been untouched for the past couple of decades, all of a sudden they're being snapped at the heels by relatively small organisations with much more capable machines."

Rocket Lab's carbon-composite "Electron" rocket with its in-house designed "Rutherford" engines – named after the famous kiwi scientist – is an example.

Rocket Lab's launch site at the tip of Mahia Peninsula in northern Hawke's Bay.
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Rocket Lab's launch site at the tip of Mahia Peninsula in northern Hawke's Bay.

Beck says the company has a backlog of customers signed up to get payloads into space, with launch prices starting at $US4.9 million - a fraction of the cost of getting a traditional rocket into space.

"We still believe we're years ahead of our competitors. The one thing we have that nobody else has is the only private orbital launch site in the world, and the only launch site in the world that can reach the range of inclinations that we can out of that one site. It's a massive strategic and competitive advantage for us."

The launch pad explosion of a SpaceX rocket in September was a reminder that things can go horribly wrong in the space business. But Beck is philosophical.

The sky's the limit for Peter Beck.
GARRY BRANDON

The sky's the limit for Peter Beck.

"Rockets blow up, people have just got to get over it. Naturally that is the absolute last thing anybody wants – for ourselves, our customers and our payloads – but the reality is it's proven time and time again that irrespective of how much time and money you've spent and what team you have behind you, whether it be a half-a-trillion-dollar space shuttle programme or a smaller programme, these issues occur," he said.

"The reason we have these test flights is so that when we come to flying our commercial customers they're not flying on unproven hardware."

The company is aiming for its first launch sometime after the holiday season to minimise disruption given nearby Mahia's popularity over summer.

Beck also wants to avoid "launch fever" – the temptation to cut corners at the last minute to get the rocket off the ground.

"We'll go when we're ready."

 - Stuff

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