The debut flight of Rocket Lab's miniature satellite launcher wasn't perfect, but the company is confident enough to proceed with plans for a second test launch this summer, founder and CEO Peter Beck said today (May 25).
Speaking to reporters less than 12 hours after the first Electron rocket bolted off its seaside launchpad in New Zealand, Beck said the booster's first and second stages separated as planned, but the upper stage, which doubled as a test payload, failed to reach its desired orbit about 310 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth.
A preliminary analysis shows that the upper stage ended up at roughly half that altitude, Beck said. [Watch: Rocket Lab's Electron Arrives at Launch Site]
"This is why we have test flights. It's all about gathering the data, finding out what works and what doesn't work," he said.
Thursday's flight from the tip of New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula provided more than enough information to move ahead with a second test launch sometime this summer, Beck added.
"We've got over 20,000 channels of data to go through … We'll learn what we need to learn and move on with the next one," Beck said.
Rocket Lab plans to launch three test flights before it begins commercial launch services later this year.
Electron's launch today at 4:20 p.m. local time (12:20 a.m. EDT/0420 GMT) also marked New Zealand's entry into an exclusive group of countries that can launch spacecraft into orbit. In addition to the United States and Russia, which put their first satellites into orbit 60 years ago, the other countries with orbital launch capabilities are France, Japan, China, India, Israel, Iran and North Korea.
"If anybody is ever contemplating building a launch range, I'd advise against it," Beck quipped. "It certainly is a lot more involved than even we, four years ago, thought [it] would be."
Rocket Lab decided to build its own spaceport so it can fly as often as it wants, without having to share range resources with other users.
Ultimately, Rocket Lab is aiming for weekly flights of Electron, a two-stage, carbon-composite rocket designed to deliver payloads weighing up to about 330 lbs. (150 kilograms) into orbits some 310 miles above Earth.
The booster is powered by 3D-printed Rutherford engines that burn a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene.
Rocket Lab's customers include NASA and the privately owned companies Planet, Spire, Spaceflight and Moon Express, the latter of which is hoping for a ride before the end of the year so it can compete in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.
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Irene Klotz is a founding member and long-time contributor to Space.com. She concurrently spent 25 years as a wire service reporter and freelance writer, specializing in space exploration, planetary science, astronomy and the search for life beyond Earth. A graduate of Northwestern University, Irene currently serves as Space Editor for Aviation Week & Space Technology.