Kiwi rocket company ready to blast off

Last updated 14:29 30/07/2014

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New Zealand aerospace company Rocket Lab has unveiled a 10-tonne rocket capable of sending satellites into space for less than $6 million, a fraction of current costs.

At an unveiling in Auckland this morning, Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said the 18-metre rocket, named Electron, would revolutionise the space game.

Electron would make space more accessible. The average cost of sending a satellite into space was about $155m, Beck said.

The Electron is significantly smaller than the average rocket length of 60m.

Electron would also reduce the time it took to launch a satellite from years to weeks, he said.

"This is the new way to access space."

The carbon-composite rocket could carry satellites weighing up to 120 kilograms and was expected to be launched next year, he said.

Rocket Lab would provide all the launching facilities to get customers' satellites into space. It already had commitments for more than 30 launches, he said.

Beck, who founded Rocket Lab in 2007, said a team of 25 staff had worked on the project for the past year.

The company was looking to add 30 staff to meet demand forecasts.

"We're looking to create a billion-dollar space industry down here."

Beck, 36, hoped to launch one rocket a week after the company started regular manufacturing of Electron rockets.

"If we can launch one rocket a week we are going to change the world."

Rocket Lab built Electron using a $25m government grant and funds from The Warehouse founder Sir Stephen Tindall and principal backer Silicon Valley venture capital company Khosla Ventures.

A former Nasa director and Florida Space Institute research associate Dr Alan Weston, who was at today's unveiling, said Rocket Lab was a global leader in aerospace technology and Electron was a game changer.

"It's revolutionary," Weston said. "This will address the cost of getting spacecraft into space."

Electron opened up opportunities for New Zealand to partner with international satellite and technology organisations, he said.

"This is not just cheap, it's responsive which means you can launch it when you want to. In the United States it can take over a year."

Beck said the rocket has 10 engines, named Rutherford, which burned the same amount of fuel an aircraft used to fly from Auckland to Christchurch.

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Satellites launched by Electron could remain in orbit for five to seven years and could be used for purposes such as weather prediction, real-time mapping, high-speed internet and climate-change monitoring, Beck said.

A patent was pending on the technology for the rocket.

The unveiling attracted the interest of foreign media including the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Wired.

Rocket Lab had scheduled a programme of three test flights to get the rocket into space, Beck said.

Since 2007 the company had launched about 80 rockets, the highest of which reached a sub-orbital altitude of 100 kilometres, he said.

That was in 2009 with the launch of Atea-1: a 6m-long, 60kg rocket from Great Mercury Island.

Beck said the first rocket would be launched from a yet to be confirmed New Zealand location.

"The great thing about New Zealand is it offers us a fantastic launch site which is a major issue for other countries."

Rocket launches worked well in New Zealand because it's isolated with a small population and light air and shipping traffic.

It also allows the rocket to be launched from a trajectory favourable angle, Beck said.

- The Dominion Post


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