Māhia World’s Best Spot for Rocket Launching

“The Māhia Peninsula has been a holidaymakers’ haven for decades. It offers sandy beaches, hot springs and scenic trails. And, for those of a technological mindset, it also offers the world’s first private orbital-rocket-launching base, Launch Complex 1,” the Economist reports in an article which appeared in the science and technology section of the print edition under the headline “East of Eden”.

“Launch Complex 1, as this base is known, sits at the tip of the peninsula and thus on the edge of the South Pacific ocean. Beyond it, the waters stretch uninterrupted by land for thousands of kilometres. Few ships ply the area and few aircraft fly over it. A misfire or rocket stage falling into this wide expanse will thus inconvenience no one. Māhia is farther from the equator than most launch sites (lifting off from an equatorial pad extracts maximum additional velocity from Earth’s spin), but that is also an advantage. The sacrifice of some spin-assisted lift makes it easier to reach certain sorts of useful orbit, such as those that pass over the poles.

“The builder and owner of this paradise of rocketry is Rocket Lab, a firm which, though American (its headquarters are in Huntington Beach, California), was founded and is led by a New Zealander. By his own admission, Peter Beck, the Kiwi in question, has been obsessed with rockets since childhood. Now, he is close to turning that obsession into a successful business.

“Rocket Lab’s launch vehicle, a multi-stager called ‘Electron’, underwent its first test in May 2017. Its second happened on 21 January, 16 days before the more widely publicised launch of a much bigger experimental vehicle, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. Unlike the Falcon Heavy, though, which carried an old sports car into space as a joke, the Rocket Lab test had a real payload, in the form of three small, commercial satellites. (It also carried a reflective, geodesic sphere dubbed the Humanity Star, which was visible to the naked eye when it passed over at night until it re-entered the atmosphere in March.) That second test having gone well, Beck now deems the time for testing over. Electron’s third outing, scheduled for sometime in the fortnight starting 20 April will be a fully commercial flight.

“On its launch pad an Electron stands 17m tall and has a diameter of 1.2m. The engines that power it are named after New Zealand’s most famous physicist, Lord Rutherford, who discovered the atomic nucleus and much else. The first stage has nine Rutherford engines. The second has but one. These lift into orbit a third, ‘kick’ stage that carries the payload. The kick stage is fitted with a different sort of rocket engine, Curie, which can be started, shut down and restarted as needed. That lets it manoeuvre the kick stage and thus dispatch different parts of the payload into different orbits.

“The intention is that the location of Launch Complex 1, combined with the Curie-steered kick stage, will give customers a wide range of orbits to launch into. The complex is licensed to dispatch a rocket every 72 hours for the next 30 years. That proposed launch frequency means satellites can be got away quickly. Beck claims that Rocket Lab’s decision to build Launch Complex 1 is coincidental to his nationality. In his view Māhia really is the best available site. Time will tell if he is right.”

Original article by The Economist, April 5, 2018.

Tags: Economist (The)  Launch Complex 1  Mahia Peninsula  Peter Beck  Rocket Lab  

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