AUCKLAND (TIP): The next revolution in space, what was long the special preserve of tax-funded giants like Nasa, will be launching next year from a paddock in New Zealand’s remote South Island.
The rocket launch range is not just New Zealand’s first of any kind, but also the world’s first private launch range, and the rocket, designed by Rocket Lab, one of a growing number of businesses aiming to slash the cost of getting into space, will be powered by a 3D-printed rocket engine–another first.
The 16-metre carbon-cased rocket will weigh just 1,190 kilogrammes, and with fuel and payload will be only about a third the weight of SpaceX’s Falcon 1, the first privately developed launch vehicle to go into orbit back in 2008.
The remote launch site is no accident. “One advantage of New Zealand being small is that’s the perfect place to launch a rocket,” said Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck.
Ships and planes need re-routing every time a rocket is launched, which limits opportunities in crowded US skies, but New Zealand, a country of 4 million people in the South Pacific, has only Antarctica to its south.
Rocket Lab is aiming for up to one launch a week from around 2018, costing just under $5 million each, a tenth of launch prices now, and vastly increasing business access to space.
Even Nasa, struggling to shift its launch backlog, this month awarded Rocket Lab and rivals Firefly Space Systems and Virgin Galactic contracts totalling $17.1 million to launch tiny satellites into orbit from 2017. Rocket Lab recently signed a deal with Moon Express to send a rocket to the moon in 2017 in a bid to win Google’s $20 million Lunar X prize for the first company to send a probe that broadcasts images from the moon. Moon Express has already contracted for five launches with Rocket Lab and plans to send robotic spacecraft to the moon for exploration and commercial development of natural resources such as platinum.