Rocket Lab Aims to Win Cubesat-Launching Race
Peter Beck, CEO of the private spaceflight company Rocket Lab, holding a Rutherford engine and standing next to an Electron Rocket.
Credit: Phil Walter/Staff/Getty Images

Rocket Lab is dedicating itself to launching small satellites cheaply and efficiently — a capability the American company thinks the burgeoning private spaceflight industry desperately needs.

Small satellites, some no bigger than a lunch box, are revolutionizing how people gather data about the Earth, and they might be the future of global communications.

Rocket Lab's business model is a bit like Henry Ford's was when he started selling Model T's: keep the machine simple, produce a lot of them and keep them affordable. Peter Beck, the company's owner, told Space.com that he'd like to reach a point where Rocket Lab launches one of its custom-made, small-satellite rockets about once per week. And similar to Henry Ford (who didn't even want to make different colors of the Model T), Beck said that until that basic goal is met, he has no plans to diversify the company's services. [Satellite Quiz: How Well Do You Know What's Orbiting Earth?]

"Generally, when people come to us and want us to get involved in other projects, we won't, simply because what we're trying to do here is so important," Beck said. "Who knows what the future holds, but we're laser-focused on getting this launch vehicle to market and, hopefully, liberating the small-satellite world."

The two-stage Electron rocket, designed and built by Rocket Lab, carries payloads of up to about 500 pounds (225 kilograms), with a nominal payload of about 330 lbs. (150 kg). It will lift off from the company's private launch facility in a remote part of New Zealand.

Beck said Rocket Lab is on track to make its first test launches this year. The Electron's single-engine second stage has been flight-qualified, but the first stage (which uses nine engines) has not. The company already has contracts with four customers, including NASA, and plans to start delivering on those contracts in 2017, according to Beck. For example, Rocket Lab is scheduled to launch two lunar missions in 2017 for the company Moon Express, which is trying to win the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.

A single flight currently costs NZ$7.6 million (about $5.5 million at current exchange rates). For comparison, each launch of SpaceX's much larger and more powerful Falcon 9 rocket currently costs about $60 million.

At least 17 other companies worldwide are working on launch vehicles in the same class as Electron (that is, they carry payloads weighing a maximum of about 1,100 lbs., or 500 kg). Three others have announced that they will try to make their first flights in 2017, and two of those companies are also under contract with NASA to fly a payload by the end of 2018. Right now, Rocket Lab is on schedule to stay half a step ahead of its competition, but anyone who follows spaceflight knows that timelines change quickly in that industry.

 “Although the privatization of the space industry has promised an easier path to commercial launches, space has remained an incredibly difficult and expensive place to reach,” Beck said in a statement on the company's website. “Electron makes it possible for us to continue to execute on our vision to enable easier access to space."

While some satellites are bigger than a pickup truck, the very smallest (called cubesats) are no larger than a lunchbox. Small satellites are being used for a wide range of applications, including Earth imaging, weather tracking and microgravity science experiments. Swarms of small satellites could even be used for communication networks. Small satellites are much cheaper both to build and to launch; that reduced overhead means bantam spacecraft can be replaced sooner if they break, or if their owners want to update them.

The San Francisco-based company Planet, formerly Planet Labs, is using custom-built small satellites to image 85 percent of Earth's landmass in high definition, multiple times per month. The company's coal is to eventually image 100 percent of the Earth's landmass on a daily basis. According to Planet's website, these images can be used for a slew of things, including monitoring wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters, as well as broader weather patterns. The images can reveal the rate of urban development or decay and other factors that might influence various industries; the satellites can also provide a look at deforestation and mining operations (either legal or illegal). [Planet's Cubesat Photos of Earth from Space (Gallery)]

With modern advances in photography, Planet can get its high-res imaging technology to fit inside a satellite about the size of a shoe box. The company images large areas by putting multiple satellites in orbit at a time, so volume is important. Planet currently has  more privately owned satellites in orbit than any other company on Earth, with 60. A company spokesperson said that in order to meet its goal of imaging Earth's entire landmass each day, the company is working to maintain a constellation of 150 imaging satellites.

To get small satellites into orbit, companies like Planet have had to hitch a ride atop large rockets carrying additional, much larger payloads, effectively piggybacking their way to space. For example, Planet cubesats have hitched a ride with cargo going to the International Space Station, and then been released into orbit from the ISS. These cargo missions provide Planet with relatively frequent opportunities to "test new technology on orbit," a company spokesperson told Space.com. But, the station is not in the primary orbit that Planet uses for its satellites, so the company will need to rely on other launch providers to reach its goals. (The company has also launched satellites on India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle).

"At Planet, we maintain a diversified launch manifest in order to mitigate the risks inherent in the launch industry," Mike Safyan, director of launch at Planet, wrote in a blog post on the company's website. "Launches can get delayed by several months, or even years. Launches also run the risk of failing (we have 2 launch failures under our belt). In recognition of how unpredictable launch can be, we engage with launch providers from all around the world to try to find multiple launch opportunities for our satellites — in essence, putting many eggs in many baskets. We remain agnostic as to the specific launch vehicle or launch partner we work with; it’s more about finding launches to the right orbit and in the right timeframe at a reasonable price."

Other companies and scientists who want to launch small satellites are also subject to the restrictions of flight availability, cost and orbital destination.

"The cubesat and small satellite engineers and scientists are coming up with missions that justify flying unique orbits and at altitudes that are not available if we only fly as secondary payloads," Garrett Skrobot, lead for the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, or ELaNa, mission for NASA's Launch Services Program, said in a statement from the agency. "These are still experimental satellites, but the technology they are employing is mature enough to use in these new ways."

In 2017, Rocket Lab's first customer launch will carry Planet satellites into orbit. (Customers don't have to pay for a full Rocket Lab launch by themselves, however. Sending up a single cubesat on a shared mission starts at $50,000). If Rocket Lab can reach its goal of launching about one rocket per week, it would mean that a company like Planet would have more opportunities to send satellites to space. The dedicated Electron rocket would also mean more control over when they launch and where they go.

One of the biggest reasons Rocket Lab can promise that high flight frequency is that the company owns its own launch range, only recently completed, on the Mahia Penninsula on the northeast coast of New Zealand's North Island. It's relative devoid of air and sea traffic, especially compared with places like Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base a few hours north of Los Angeles, Beck said.

Rocket Lab announced completion of the facility on Sept. 27. The company is licensed by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to launch every 72 hours, Beck said. (Because the company is U.S.-based, it must receive flight approval from both the FAA and the New Zealand space agency).

Beck is originally from New Zealand, although he says it's just a coincidence that he chose his homeland as the site of the launch complex. He was searching for a location where launches could happen frequently, with the option to schedule a launch on short notice (weeks or days, as opposed to months or years).

By having its own launch rage, Rocket Lab is also able to reduce the cost of a launch.

"There's a cost sunk in building [the range], but after that it's just maintenance," Beck said. By contrast, using the launch facilities at a place like Cape Canaveral can tack on somewhere around $1 million per launch attempt because they require the support of a large facility that is meant to launch very large rockets, he added.

"It's not that they're inefficient," Beck said. "It's just … the range infrastructure is sized to vehicles that are just totally different [than ours], and totally different missions to what we have."

From its launch complex, Rocket Lab can send rockets into space at a wide range of angles, from straight up to 39 degrees (this is the widest range of any launch complex in the world, according to Beck). The rocket can put payloads in a sun-synchronous orbit, which means the satellite flies over different sections of the Earth at approximately the same solar time each day (meaning the sun is at the same position in the sky). This can be helpful for Earth imaging satellites because it provides the same lighting conditions in different areas and over multiple days. Planet's satellites will primarily fly in sun synchronous orbits, the company spokesperson said.

An aerial shot of Rocket Lab's completed launch site in New Zealand.
An aerial shot of Rocket Lab's completed launch site in New Zealand.
Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab's website has declared the launch facility the first private orbital space launch complex in the world. Blue Origin, the company run by billionaire Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, has completed suborbital launches from its private range in Texas, while SpaceX is working on a private orbital range in Texas as well. The race is on to see whose range becomes operational first.

The Electron's Rutherford engines are named after the New Zealand scientist Ernest Rutherford, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1908, in part for his study of radioactive elements.

Each Rutherford engine is only about 2.5 feet (0.75 meters) long, and generates about 5,000 lbs. of thrust. The first stage of the Electron rocket uses nine engines to get the rocket off the surface of the Earth, and the second stage uses a single engine that's tailored to operate in the vacuum of space and put the payload into orbit. The Electron's first stage will have to be flight-qualified before Rocket Lab can conduct its first test launch.

Beck said nearly every aspect of the Electron rocket's design and construction is done in-house; only a few details, like machining of a few parts, is done off-site. Essentially, he said, the raw materials come in, and the rockets come out.

The payload fairing (the shell that contains whatever it is the rocket is sending into space) is made from carbon fiber, which is durable but light, helping to further lower the cost. Much of the engine is made via additive manufacturing, a category that includes 3D printing. The term refers to the pieces of rocket built by adding layer upon layer. According to the company website, the Rutherford is the "first oxygen/hydrocarbon [fuel] engine to use additive manufacturing for all primary components of the combustor and propellant supply system." [3D Printing In Space: A New Dimension (Photo Gallery)]

Beck said he and his team started designing the Electron with "an absolutely fresh sheet of paper," meaning they weren't required to use any parts or processes that were previously established. Every piece of the rocket could be designed from scratch, in the way that best serviced the company's goals.

"We made decisions not always based on performance but on cost and manufacturability," he said. "We didn't learn how to do all the 3D printing and additive manufacturing of highly stressed structures for fun. We did that because it was the only manufacturing technique that was going to reduce the price and increase the performance of that engine that was out there."

 Beck said that the design of the Electron also makes it possible to manufacture rockets at a relatively rapid clip. No part of the vehicle is reusable — every part is discarded after a flight — so if Rocket Lab wants to service customers about once per week, the company will need to be manufacturing rockets at that same rate.

An annual state-of-the-industry report from the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) highlighted four small-satellite launch providers that are scheduled to make their first launches by 2018. Two of those companies have, like Rocket Lab, secured a launch contract with NASA under the Venture Class Launch Services Contract (VCLS): Virgin Galactic and Firefly.

Virgin Galactic is backed by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson and is also aiming to sell commercial trips to suborbital space for humans; the company plans to launch small satellites using its Launcher One rocket that blasts off from beneath a modified 747, dubbed Cosmic Girl. Firefly is a startup not unlike Rocket Lab that is dedicated entirely to small-satellite launch vehicles; the company recently furloughed its entire staff after a potential funder backed out of a recent funding round.

The SIA report also shows that Rocket Lab's flights will cost less overall than those of Virgin Galactic or Firefly because its payload size is smaller. When the cost is tallied up by per-kilogram launched, however, Rocket Lab actually charges significantly more: $32,667 per kg, compared with $20,000/kg for Firefly and $25,000/kg for Virgin Galactic.

NASA has more than 50 cubesats scheduled to launch in the next three years, and the VCLS contracts will "demonstrate a dedicated launch capability for smaller payloads that NASA anticipates it will require on a recurring basis for future science SmallSat and CubeSat missions," according to the SIA report.

Other private spaceflight companies tend to diversify their portfolios. For example, Blue Origin has been test-launching its New Shepard suborbital vehicle and is working on an orbital rocket known as New Glenn. The company is also leasing its BE-4 engine to United Launch Alliance (ULA) for use on the latter's Atlas V rocket.

But Beck said he has no interest in doing more than the core mission Rocket Lab is setting out to achieve. The company has no plans to lease the launch site, sell its engines to another provider, build different types of launch vehicles, or even make variations on the Electron with different engine configurations, he said.

Despite the growing successes of other private spaceflight providers and Rocket Lab's focus on its core mission, there are likely bumps in the road ahead for the company. SpaceX, which has already made many successful launches for NASA and other customers, has experienced two rocket anomalies in the last year and a half; Virgin Galactic's human spaceflight program suffered a fatal accident in 2014; and private launch provider Orbital ATK is just now getting its Antares rocket back to flight two years after an explosive anomaly during liftoff. Even when human life is not involved, spaceflight accidents are often catastrophic: destruction to launch complexes can cost millions to repair and cause setbacks for future flights, and customer payloads that may have taken years (and many millions of dollars) to build may be lost.

"We're pretty realistic about that," Beck said. "We're trying to build the most reliable launch vehicle. And I think reliability comes with frequency. The more launch vehicles you launch, the reliabilities improve … That's one of the reasons why we have a three-flight test program before we fly customers. Hopefully get some of those failures out of the road before we get customers on board."

Such catastrophic losses might be discouraging for some would-be entrepreneurs. But Beck said his strategy is to not linger on the obstacles, and have faith in his team and the machine they've designed.

"The barriers to the entry to this market are enormous, and I think if anybody sat down and wrote them all down, nobody would ever start a rocket company. Nobody would ever go to space," Beck said. "I think you just have to [take those things] in stride."

Editor's Note: This story previously stated that there are at least 17 other companies in the U.S. working on launch vehicles in the same class as Electron. The story has been corrected to say that those companies are located throughout the world, not exclusively in the U.S. 

Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield.Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.