Sunday, January 21, 2018

Startup Rocket Lab Puts Satellites in Orbit for First Time in Successful Test Flight: U.S.-New Zealand company achieves orbit on second flight of low-cost Electron rocket

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket sat on a pad December 12, 2017, on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. On Sunday, the space-transportation startup successfully placed satellites into orbit for the first time. 

The Wall Street Journal

By Andy Pasztor
Updated January 21, 2018 12:33 a.m. ET

Rocket Lab, a space-transportation startup promising frequent, economical launches of small satellites on rockets featuring 3-D printed engine parts, successfully blasted its first payload into orbit from a remote New Zealand pad.

The flight was closely watched by the international aerospace community as a harbinger of less-expensive rides to space. Peter Beck, the company’s founder and chief executive, envisions offering a breakthrough service for small satellites weighing hundreds of pounds similar to the way Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. revolutionized options for much larger payloads weighing thousands of pounds.

At roughly 2:45 p.m. local time Sunday, the countdown proceeded smoothly—following a number of temporary glitches and delays the day before—and Electron’s navigation equipment, other hardware and software systems appeared to work as designed.

The nearly 60-foot tall Electron booster—which also uses carbon composite materials and battery-powered fuel pumps—flew for roughly two minutes and 30 seconds before its nine main engines shut down as planned.

After the lower part of the rocket separated and the second stage’s single Rutherford engine fired up and burned for more than five minutes, three small satellites made it into orbit as flight controllers in Auckland, New Zealand, clapped and cheered.

Previous launch scrubs stretched back to before Christmas, with reasons ranging from weather issues to fuel-temperature problems to boats wandering into the restricted zone down range from the launchpad.

Electron’s maiden launch occurred last May, when both stages operated well but the test flight failed to reach orbit. The mission was terminated early because of a snafu with ground systems.

Backers of the closely held U.S.-New Zealand company, which include Lockheed Martin Corp. , see it promoting a revolution for researchers, entrepreneurs and fledgling commercial projects operating beyond the atmosphere. The 10-year-old company seeks to usher in an era of weekly—or ultimately even more frequent—launches of imaging, weather and other types of low-earth-orbit satellites weighing dozens of pounds to hundreds of pounds each. The projected price tag is about $5 million a launch.

That price is a fraction of the cost for a dedicated launch on existing larger rockets. Small payloads typically share a ride with heavier ones on such boosters, but their schedules can be uncertain and often provide little flexibility for customers hitching a ride with the primary customer.

In a release after the launch, Mr. Beck said, “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.”

Mr. Beck hopes to ride a global upsurge of interest in small satellites and he sees the company eventually providing essential launch services for major aerospace companies.

“We’re seeing a lot more interest coming from the more traditional players,” Mr. Beck said in an interview nine days before the launch. He added that statistics indicate Electron rockets are capable of launching nearly two-thirds of all commercial, scientific and military satellites blasted into space annually.

A number of U.S. startups, including an affiliate of British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic LLC, are seeking to benefit from the trend toward smaller payloads. India and Brazil, among other countries, also are striving to develop vehicles to put small satellites in orbit.

Fast-growing Rocket Lab has invested roughly $100 million in the venture so far, supports a growing payroll of about 200 employees and has about half a dozen rockets currently in production. The engines and electronic components are produced in the U.S, but structural parts are manufactured in New Zealand where final assembly of the rocket takes place.

Mr. Beck’s team also has constructed a private launch facility on the remote Mahia Peninsula—believed to be the world’s most extensive nongovernmental facility exclusively set up to handle vertical rocket launches—amid farmland surrounded by mountains.

The Electron program began less than six years ago, with the goal of setting up a highly vertically-integrated manufacturing plan to turn out unusually light, easy to assemble boosters. Nearly all the parts are produced by Rocket Lab and the company has said that, without fuel, an Electron weighs less than some subcompact cars.

Historically, newly designed rockets on average experience one failure during the first three flights. Other statistics indicate that, from 1990 to 2010, roughly two-thirds of maiden rocket launches were unsuccessful.

Describing his concerns before the launch, Mr. Beck sounded surprisingly upbeat about the rocket’s performance or potential technical headaches. He said he was “less concerned about the vehicle” than “scaling the company fast enough to meet the demand” for economical launches. He added that Rocket Lab already was targeting doubling its production capacity by the summer.

Original article can be found here ➤

No comments:

Post a Comment