Rocket Lab's four-year campaign to develop an inexpensive, dedicated rocket to put small satellites into orbit reached a major milestone today (May 25) with the debut launch of its two-stage Electron booster from a new commercial spaceport in New Zealand.
After waiting three days for high winds to taper off, the 56-foot tall (17 meters) carbon composite rocket lifted off from the tip of New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 4:20 p.m. local time (12:20 a.m. EDT or 0420 GMT).
"Made it to space. Team delighted," Rocket Lab representatives wrote on Twitter after the launch. [Watch: Rocket Lab's Electron Arrives at Launch Site]
Rocket Lab, based in New Zealand and Los Angeles, plans two more test flights before tackling its growing list of commercial customers.
"We don't want to just fly one and then turn right around and fly the second one. We want to learn from the first flight … Even if it's really successful there's still probably a couple of months of data analysis to go through and understand what margins we had, or if there are any improvements we can make," Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck told Space.com before launch.
Last week, Rocket Lab added a new client, the Seattle-based company Spaceflight, which arranges shared rides for small satellites and payloads.
"There are numerous rideshare launches each year to sun synchronous orbit," Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight's launch business said in a statement, referring to an orbit where a satellite overflies the same part of Earth at roughly the same local time each day.
"But getting to 45- to 60 degrees is hard to find and can cost the equivalent of buying an entire rocket," Blake said, referring to satellite orbital inclinations.
The location of Rocket Lab's Mahia launch site allows satellites to be delivered into a variety of orbital inclinations. The company is selling Electron flights for about $5.5 million apiece and aims to fly as often as once a week.
The Electron is designed to deliver payloads weighing up to about 330 lbs. (150 kilograms) into orbits some 311 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth. The two-stage, all-composite booster is powered by 3D-printed Rutherford engines burning a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene.
In addition to Spaceflight, Rocket Lab's customers include NASA, Planet, Spire and Moon Express, which is hoping for a ride before the end of the year so it can compete in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.