New Zealand has trumped Australia in the space race. American-New Zealand aerospace manufacturer Rocket Lab successfully reached orbit with the test flight of its second Electron orbital launch vehicle, ‘Still Testing’, on January 21. Electron lifted-off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand.
Following successful first and second stage burns, Electron reached orbit and deployed customer payloads at 8 minutes and 31 seconds after lift-off.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era in commercial access to space. We’re thrilled to reach this milestone so quickly after our first test launch,” said Rocket Lab CEO and founder from New Zealand Peter Beck. “Our incredibly dedicated and talented team has worked tirelessly to develop, build and launch Electron. I’m immensely proud of what they have achieved today.”
Beck added, “Reaching orbit on a second test flight is significant on its own, but successfully deploying customer payloads so early in a new rocket program is almost unprecedented. Rocket Lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that.”
Unlike big companies like Elon Musk's Space X, which use government launch sites, Rocket Labs claims to be the first company to launch its own rocket from its own launch pad. There are reportedly similar plans afoot in Australia, with a launch site allocated in the Northern Territory and tests expected in a year.
In the coming weeks, Rocket Lab engineers will analyze the data from the launch to inform future launches. Rocket Lab currently has five Electron vehicles in production, with the next launch expected to take place in early 2018. At full production, Rocket Lab expects to launch more than 50 times a year, and is regulated to launch up to 120 times a year, more than any other commercial or government launch provider in history.
‘Still Testing’ was carrying a Dove Pioneer Earth-imaging satellite for launch customer Planet, as well as two Lemur-2 satellites for weather and ship tracking company Spire. Rocket Lab’s commercial phase will see Electron fly already-signed customers including NASA, Spire, Planet, Moon Express and Spaceflight.