The next revolution in space, making humdrum 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 being assembled in a small hangar near Auckland Airport 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 this little island nation in the middle of nowhere 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 U.S. skies, but New Zealand, a country of 4 million people in the South Pacific, has only Antarctica to its south.
Rocket Lab, part funded by Lockheed Martin Corp, is aiming for up to one launch a week from around 2018, costing just under $5 million each, a tenth of typical 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 Silicon Valley-based 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 continually to the moon for exploration and commercial development of natural resources such as platinum.
Its CEO Bob Richards accepts there will be glitches and a steep learning curve, but believes companies like Moon Express are making the future as the low-cost launch brings to businesses what used to require the resources of a superpower.
“The emergence of commercial space today will have the same impact as the emergence of commercial aviation did in the early 1900s,” he said.
The bread and butter of new launch companies will be the burgeoning small satellite industry, as players such as Google, Virgin and Samsung plan satellite constellations to carry communications infrastructure and gather data from low-earth orbit.
“We’re not about building a rocket; we’re about enabling the small satellite revolution,” said Rocket Lab’s Beck.
Three separate internet broadband ventures to provide low-cost internet from the top of the Himalayas to the middle of the Sahara desert are being planned by One Web, Samsung and SpaceX, with support from Google. These alone will require 6,000 new satellites in the next four years, Rocket Lab predicts.
The Satellite Industry Association says just over 200 satellites were launched in 2014, nearly double the previous year.
Not everyone believes there will be enough demand to support the growing number of launch companies.
“The market can’t sustain that many; there’s going to be a thinning out of the herd,” said Daniel Lim, vice president of disruptive innovations at space services provider TriSept Corporation.
Others say launch cost is still too high at around $5 million, when for $40,000 companies can rideshare on a larger rocket to launch a nano-satellite, if they can tolerate long waiting lists and don’t need control over timing or trajectory.
But space startups have been proving popular with investors.
“Investor dollars are increasing their flow,” said Sean Casey, head of Silicon Valley Space Center, a business accelerator for space startups. “Venture capitalists are looking for a return on investment and the possibilities of disruptive technologies.”
The largest 100 new space companies received more than $2 billion investment in 2015, around four times more than in 2009, according to data from New Space Global.
That is still dwarfed by NASA’s $17.6 billion budget last year, but many say small companies offer options and a risk appetite that government agencies cannot.
Sandy Tirtey, a hypersonic engineer who leads the vehicle team at Rocket Lab, used to work for the European Space Agency, but lost patience with the red tape required to make small design changes.
“I had enough of all these processes,” he said. “We’re not spending all day feeding paper work, we’re spending all day solving problems,” he said.