NZ set to join the space age

Air NZ gas turbines manager Richard Ison with Rocket Lab technical director Peter Beck and senior engineer Nikhil Raghu.
Air NZ gas turbines manager Richard Ison with Rocket Lab technical director Peter Beck and senior engineer Nikhil Raghu.

New Zealand's start-up aerospace company Rocket Lab says it is set for its first high-altitude rocket launch next month after completing its final ground-based test today.

"We're ready to go," said the company's founder and technical director, Peter Beck. The pioneer in New Zealand's embryonic space industry will launch its first small unmanned rocket, Atea-1 rocket, at the end of November, from Great Mercury Island.

The island, 18km east of the Coromandel Peninsula, is owned by Sir Michael Fay and David Richwhite.

Rocket Lab’s Atea-1 rocket engine under test.
Rocket Lab’s Atea-1 rocket engine under test.

The lab said Atea-1 will be the first privately-built rocket launched from the Southern Hemisphere into space.

The final ground-test was in Air New Zealand's gas turbines testbed at its Auckland engineering base.

"It's an ideal facility, which has allowed us to control a lot of the variables and push ahead fast," said Mr Beck.

The Air NZ gas turbines manager, Richard Ison, said the company was happy to help. The Rocket Lab had a "fresh approach that simply blows right through the barriers of conventional thinking," he said.

"The emissions from this engine are non-toxic as opposed to the traditional launch platforms, so it would be great to see Rocket Lab winning a big share of this market."

The hybrid fuel is polymer-based and only burns in the presence of an oxidiser – liquid nitrous oxide – which has reduced the environmental impact compared to conventional solid-fuel rockets.

The Atea-1 is designed specifically for scientific sub-orbital missions in which it will travel to an altitude of 120km altitude then return to earth in a sub-orbital ballistic curve, to be recovered from a splashdown at sea. The edge of space starts at 100km.

It can carry just 2kg payload – enough for a lot of miniaturised scientific instruments – and is almost entirely constructed from lightweight carbon fibre composites.

Components such as the rocket nozzle and combustion chamber are all manufactured from Rocket Lab's own composite materials which are a fraction of the weight of traditional metal components.

The rocket generates the equivalent of 3200 horsepower from an engine weighing just 13kg. It will accelerate to five times the speed of sound during a flight estimated to last up to 40 minutes.

"The rocket looks quite small for something designed to reach space, but that indicates its efficiency," said Mr Beck.

"Small is beautiful in the rocket world."

Research scientists presently had to use companies launching former military rockets from just a couple of sites, often have to share payload space to cut costs, and wait years.

The company was fielding interest from the commercial sector and is talking to New Zealand companies about launching their products and brands into space for both commercial payloads and marketing.

Mr Beck began his space career by mixing rocket fuel in his Dunedin flat while he was working as an engineer for Fisher & Paykel in Mosgiel 11 years ago, testing his products in the F&P carpark.

He later worked at state science company Industrial Research, and then moved into fulltime rocket research in 2007, forming Rocket Lab, with internet entrepreneur Mark Rocket.

Mr Rocket, who changed his name from Stevens, was the first New Zealander to book a seat on Virgin Galactic's sub-orbital space flight in 2010.