The next revolution in space will be launching next year from a field on New Zealand’s South Island.
The launch base is New Zealand’s first, and the Rocket Lab spacecraft will be powered by a 3-D-printed engine — another first.
Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab, one of a growing number of businesses aiming to slash the cost of getting into space, is specializing in small satellites. Its 52-foot-tall carbon-cased rocket, being assembled in a small hangar near Auckland Airport, will weigh just 2,600 pounds; with fuel and payload, it will be only about a third the weight of SpaceX’s Falcon 1, which in 2008 became the first privately developed launch vehicle to go into orbit.
The remote launch site is no accident. “One advantage of New Zealand being this little island nation in the middle of nowhere is that’s the perfect place to launch a rocket,” said Rocket Lab’s chief executive, Peter Beck.
Ships and planes need rerouting every time a rocket is launched, which limits opportunities in crowded U.S. skies, but New Zealand, with a population of 4 million, has only Antarctica to its south.
Rocket Lab, with an investment from Lockheed Martin, is aiming for up to one launch a week as of 2018 at a cost of just under $5 million each — a tenth of typical launch prices now — vastly increasing business access to space.
Trying to clear its launch backlog, NASA has awarded contracts totaling $17.1 million to Rocket Lab, Firefly Space Systems and Virgin Galactic to launch tiny satellites into orbit beginning in 2017.
Rocket Lab recently signed a deal with Silicon Valley-based Moon Express to send a rocket to the moon in 2017 in a bid to win Google’s $20 million Lunar X prize for the first company to send a probe that broadcasts images from the moon.
Moon Express has already contracted for five launches with Rocket Lab and plans to send robotic spacecraft continually to the moon for exploration and commercial development of natural resources such as platinum.
Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, accepts that there will be glitches and a steep learning curve, but he says that companies such as his are shaping the future as the low-cost launch brings to businesses what used to require the resources of a superpower.
“The emergence of commercial space today will have the same impact as the emergence of commercial aviation did in the early 1900s,” he said.
The bread and butter of new launch companies will be small satellites, as players such as Google, Virgin and Samsung plan to carry communications infrastructure and gather data from low-Earth orbit.
“We’re not about building a rocket; we’re about enabling the small-satellite revolution,” Beck said.
Three ventures to provide low-cost Internet service from the top of the Himalayas to the middle of the Sahara Desert are being planned by One Web, Samsung and SpaceX, with support from Google. These alone will require 6,000 new satellites in the next four years, Rocket Lab predicts.
The Satellite Industry Association says just over 200 satellites were launched in 2014, nearly double the previous year.
Not everyone believes there will be enough demand to support the growing number of launch companies.
“The market can’t sustain that many,” said Daniel Lim, vice president of disruptive innovations at TriSept, a space services provider. “There’s going to be a thinning-out of the herd.”
Others say a $5 million launch cost is still too high, when companies that can tolerate long waiting lists and don’t need control over timing or trajectory can ride-share on a larger rocket to launch a nano-satellite for $40,000.
But space start-ups have been proving popular with investors.
“Investor dollars are increasing their flow,” said Sean Casey, head of Silicon Valley Space Center, a business accelerator for space start-ups. “Venture capitalists are looking for a return on investment and the possibilities of disruptive technologies.”
The largest 100 new space companies received more than $2 billion in investment in 2015, around four times more than in 2009, according to data from New Space Global.
That is still dwarfed by NASA’s $17.6 billion annual budget, but many say small companies offer options and a risk appetite that government agencies cannot.
Sandy Tirtey, a hypersonic engineer who leads the vehicle team at Rocket Lab, used to work for the European Space Agency but lost patience with the red tape required to make small design changes.
“I had enough of all these processes,” he said. “We’re not spending all day feeding paperwork; we’re spending all day solving problems.”