Thursday, September 29, 2016

World's First Private Orbital Launch Complex Completed in New Zealand

Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab, a US-New Zealand company that aims to provide commercial rocket launch services, announced on Monday, Sept. 26, the completion of the world’s first private space launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The facility, named Launch Complex 1, will serve as the primary site for launches of the company’s Electron rocket carrying satellites into space.

“Completing Launch Complex 1 is a significant milestone in the build-up to our first Electron test flight,” said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck. “Launch Complex 1 presents a considerable opportunity to change how we access space.”

The location of the site enables it to offer customers a variety of orbital inclinations – from 39 degrees through sun-synchronous. Besides, the low volume of marine and air traffic allow the complex to perform space launches very frequently. The site received a 30-year license to launch rockets every 72 hours - the highest frequency of space launches in history. In order to get the most out of this opportunity, the company targets a maximum of 120 launches a year.

“These are big goals and I am very excited for Mahia and New Zealand to be launching more rockets into space than any other country in the world,” Beck said.

The newly completed complex includes a vehicle processing hangar where Electron rockets will be prepared for launch as well as a 45-metric-ton launch platform and tower. The platform will be used to erect the rocket from a horizontal to a vertical position and will provide fuel and launch services. The site also features storage tanks for liquid oxygen and kerosene.

Construction of the complex started in December 2015 and included upgrading the local infrastructure. By June 2016, most of the work was completed and in August 2016, the launch platform was installed, marking the final major step towards the site’s opening.

The opening ceremony of the new complex that took place on Monday, was attended by about 200 people, including New Zealand’s Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce, Rocket Lab staff, members of the newly formed New Zealand Space Agency, officials and locals.

“It helps put New Zealand more on the map. We are famous for our food, tourism and movies, but this helps tell the story of New Zealand’s high-tech companies and it’s an important part of our future,” Joyce said.

With a mass of about 10.5 metric tons, the two-stage Electron rocket is 52 feet (16 meters) tall and 3.94 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter. It is capable of launching up to 330 lbs. (150 kilograms) of payload into a sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) at an altitude of 310 miles (500 kilometers). The launcher uses Rocket Lab’s electrically pump-fed Rutherford for its two stages.

The company is currently working on the qualification of the Electron’s first stage. The second stage and the 3D printed Rutherford engine, have already passed the qualification. 

Electron will be employed for launching CubeSat nanosatellites into space. Rocket Lab reveals that the tiny spacecraft that will be lofted by this booster will be used to provide optimized crop monitoring, improved weather reporting, internet from space, natural disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data and search and rescue services.

The company aims to offer the most affordable small satellite launch services starting at $4.9 million. On the list of future customers are: NASA, Planet, Spire and Moon Express.

First test launch of the Electron rocket is currently planned to take place by the end of the year. The liftoff of Moon Express’s lunar lander MX-1, is currently targeted for late 2017. Successful launches from Launch Complex 1 will make New Zealand the 11th country to put a satellite into orbit.

“If that is successful, New Zealand will become just the 11th nation in the history of the planet to put a satellite into orbit. So it’s going to be a big moment and a proud moment for me,” Beck noted.

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