Rocket Lab the FedEx of Space Industry
A small rocket from a little-known company lifted off last weekend from the east coast of New Zealand, carrying a clutch of tiny satellites, New York Times journalist Kenneth Chang wrote last week. That modest event – the first commercial launch by New Zealand-US company Rocket Lab – could mark the beginning of a new era in the space business, where countless small rockets take off from spaceports around the world. This miniaturisation of rockets and spacecraft places outer space within reach of a broader swath of the economy.
The rocket, called the Electron, is a mere sliver compared with the giant rockets that Elon Musk, of SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos, of Blue Origin, envisage using to send people into the solar system. The Electron is just 7 metres tall and can only carry a payload of between 150 and 225kg into space.
But Rocket Lab is aiming for markets closer to home.
“We’re FedEx,” said Peter Beck, the New Zealand-born founder and chief executive of Rocket Lab. “We’re a little man that delivers a parcel to your door.”
The payload of this mission, which Rocket Lab whimsically named ‘It’s Business Time’, offered a glimpse of this future: two ship-tracking satellites for Spire Global; a small climate- and environment-monitoring satellite for GeoOptics; a small probe built by high school students in Irvine; and a demonstration version of a drag sail that would pull defunct satellites out of orbit.
Advances in technology and computer chips have enabled smaller satellites to perform the same tasks as their predecessors. And constellations of hundreds or thousands of small satellites, orbiting at lower altitudes that are easier to reach, can mimic the capabilities once possible only from a fixed geosynchronous position.
“It’s really a shift in the market,” Beck said. “What once took the size of a car is now the size of a microwave oven, and with exactly the same kind of capabilities.”
The Electron, Beck said, would have been capable of lifting more than 60 per cent of the spacecraft that headed to orbit last year. By contrast, space analysts wonder how much of a market exists for a behemoth like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which had its first spectacular launch in February.
A Falcon Heavy can lift a payload 300 times heavier than a Rocket Lab Electron, but it costs US$90 million compared with the Electron’s US$5 million.
The small rocket companies also have to compete with Spaceflight Industries, a Seattle company that resells empty space on larger rockets that is not taken up by the main payload. In addition, Spaceflight is looking to purchasing entire rockets launched by other companies, including Rocket Lab, and selling the payload space to a range of companies heading to a similar orbit.
Original article by Kenneth Chang, San Francisco Gate, November 16, 2018.
Photo by Rocket Lab.