US-based spaceflight startup company, Rocket Lab completed their second successful test flight this weekend reaching orbit for the first time. The company's Electron rocket launched from New Zealand at 2:43 PM local time on Sunday (or 8:43 PM ET on Saturday), and successfully deployed three commercial satellites about eight and a half minutes later. This was Electron's first full mission and its success puts Rocket Lab in a position to start its commercial operations later this year. “Reaching orbit on a second test flight is significant on its own, but successfully deploying customer payloads so early in a new rocket program is almost unprecedented,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said in a statement. “Rocket Lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that.”
Small and frequent missions
Unlike many of the big spaceflight players, RocketLab is concentrating on small, light rockets that can be launched regularly with small payloads. The Electron rocket is roughly 55 feet tall and has a payload capacity of 330 and 500 pounds to lower Earth orbit.
In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is 180 feet tall with a payload capacity to a similar orbit of 50,000 pounds. The Rocket Lab business model has the chance to appeal to operators who operate small satellites. Getting smaller satellites into orbit has been a challenge in the past due to the long wait times to get a ride with large, irregular rockets. Electron offers these smaller operators the chance to potentially hire the whole rocket and get their satellites up at the orbit when they want, individual flights may start as low as $4.9 million. However, if this option is too expensive, Rocket Lab wants to offer frequent flights of mixed payloads.
RocketLab could launch 120 times per year
Rocket Lab currently has five Electron vehicles in production, with the next launch expected to take place in early 2018.
Once at full production Rocket Lab hopes to launch more than 50 times a year, it says it is currently regulated to launch up to 120 times a year.
Rocket Lab already boasts many high profile clients like NASA, Spire, Planet, Moon Express and Spaceflight. Moon Express, who defines its mission as “to redefine possible by returning to the Moon and unlocking its mysteries and resources for the benefit of humanity.” is part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Rocketlab hopes to assist the team in launching their moon lander. The Lunar X Prize is a contest to send privately funded landers to the Moon’s surface. According to the competition's rules, the competing teams must complete the missions before March 31st, 2018 in order to win the huge prize money. With this latest successful launch by Rocket Lab, the collaborative effort might make it in time. Now, it’s possible Rocket Lab could be ready to do the mission, though Moon Express hasn’t unveiled a completed lander yet.