Rocket Lab is a private American aerospace manufacturer and small satellite launch service provider with a wholly owned New Zealand subsidiary. It developed a sub-orbital sounding rocket named Ātea and currently operates a lightweight orbital rocket known as Electron, which provides dedicated launches for smallsats and CubeSats. The company was founded in New Zealand in 2006 by engineer Peter Beck and established headquarters in California in the United States in 2013.
|Industry||Launch service provider|
|Founded||June 2006Auckland, New Zealandin|
|Peter Beck (CEO, CTO)|
Rutherford rocket engine
Curie rocket engine
Photon satellite bus
Number of employees
|~500  (June 2019)|
The Electron test program began in May 2017, with commercial flights announced by the company to occur at a price listed in early 2018 as US$5.7 million. Launching from Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, the rocket's test flights took place on 25 May 2017 and 21 January 2018, while its first commercial flight took place on 11 November 2018. On 16 December 2018, Rocket Lab launched their first mission for NASA's ELaNa program. The company plans to make its first launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia in 2020.
Rocket Lab was founded in June 2006 by New Zealander Peter Beck, the company's CEO and CTO. Internet entrepreneur and fellow New Zealander Mark Rocket was the seed investor and co-director from 2007 to 2011. Rocket Lab claimed it became the first private company in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space after launching its Ātea-1 sounding rocket in November 2009. The payload was not recovered, but this was not deemed necessary. As an instrumentation dart, the payload was ballistic; its trajectory depended only on the boost phase of flight. The launch took place off the coast of New Zealand, from the private island (the Great Mercury Island) of Michael Fay, a New Zealand banker and investor. Among other early investors into Rocket Labs was Stephen Tindall, a New Zealand entrepreneur and start-up investor.
In December 2010, Rocket Lab was awarded a U.S. government contract from the Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS) to study a low cost space launcher to place CubeSats into orbit. This agreement with NASA enables the company to use NASA resources such as personnel, facilities, and equipment for commercial launch efforts.
Around 2013, the company moved its registration from New Zealand to the United States, and opened headquarters in Huntington Beach, California. The move coincided with the company receiving funding from American sources, and was in part due to increased U.S. government customership in the company. In 2020, Rocket Lab moved its headquarters to Long Beach, California.
Funding was obtained from Khosla Ventures in 2013, and Callaghan Innovation (a Crown entity of New Zealand) and Bessemer Venture Partners in 2014. Lockheed Martin became a strategic investor in 2015, and Rocket Lab announced in March 2017 that it had raised an additional US$75 million in a Series D equity round led by Data Collective with participation by Promus Ventures and several previous investors. In May 2017, the investments of the Crown agency Callaghan Innovation into Rocket Lab over the years was reported to total NZ$15 million. In November 2018, the company reported raising a US$140 million Series E round led by Future Fund. The first NASA mission, launched in 2018, was valued by the space agency at US$6.9 million (with launch services, etc., included).
Rocket Lab began to develop reusable first-stage technology in 2018, after previously stating publicly that they had no intention of attempting to recover and then reuse their small low-cost launch vehicles. They disclosed the effort to study the potential recovery of an Electron first stage in August 2019, eventually aiming to use a parachute and mid-air retrieval, stating that they hope to make a stage recovery attempt before mid-2020. In December 2019, they flight tested the reentry technology — a Rocket Lab proprietary aerothermal decelerator — on Electron flight number 10, and were able to decelerate the rocket and successfully bring it through the space-to-dense-atmosphere transition. They did not attempt to recover the rocket on this first test; but they plan to add guided parachutes to future test flights, eventually recovering the booster by snagging the parachute-descending rocket with a helicopter in the lower atmosphere.
In March 2020, the company announced that it had acquired Sinclair Interplanetary, a Canadian manufacturer of components for small satellites. Rocket Lab said that it will use Sinclair technology on its Photon line of small satellite buses, and that it will help Sinclair increase production of small satellite components for sale to other firms.
The first launch of the Ātea (Māori for "space") suborbital sounding rocket occurred in late 2009. The 6 m (20 ft) of long rocket weighing 60 kg (130 lb) was designed to carry a 2 kg (4.4 lb) payload to an altitude of 120 km (75 mi). It was intended to carry scientific payloads or possibly personal items.
Ātea-1, named Manu Karere or Bird Messenger by the local Māori iwi, was successfully launched from Great Mercury Island near the Coromandel Peninsula on 30 November 2009 at 01:23 UTC (14:23 local time) after fueling problems delayed the scheduled 20:10 UTC (07:10 local time) liftoff. The rocket was tracked by GPS uplink to the Inmarsat-B satellite constellation; it splashed down approximately 50 km (31 mi) downrange.
The payload had no telemetry downlink, but had instrumentation including the launch vehicle's uplink to Inmarsat. Payload was not required to be recovered, being only a dart, and the company advised that should it be encountered by vessels at sea, the payload should not be handled as it was "potentially hazardous" and contained delicate instruments. However, performance characteristics were completely determined by the boost stage, which did have downlink telemetry and was recovered. A second launch of Ātea-1 was not attempted.
Electron is a two-stage launch vehicle which uses Rocket Lab's Rutherford liquid engines on both stages. The vehicle is capable of delivering payloads of 150 kg to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit, the target range for the growing small satellite market. The projected cost is less than US$5 million per launch.
The Rutherford engine uses pumps that are uniquely powered by battery-powered electric motors rather than a gas generator, expander, or preburner. The engine is also fabricated largely by 3D printing, via electron beam melting, whereby layers of metal powder are melted in a high vacuum by an electron beam rather than a laser.
By March 2016, the 5,000 lbf (22 kN) second-stage Rutherford engine had completed firing tests. The first test flight took place on 25 May 2017 at 04:20 UTC from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand's North Island. After reaching an altitude of about 224 km (139 mi), the rocket was performing nominally but telemetry was lost so the decision to destroy it was made by range safety.
On 21 January 2018 at 01:43 UTC, their second rocket, on a flight named "Still Testing", launched, reached orbit and deployed three CubeSats for customers Planet Labs and Spire Global. The rocket also carried an additional satellite payload called Humanity Star, a 1 m (3 ft 3 in) of wide carbon fibre geodesic sphere made up of 65 panels that reflect the Sun's light. Humanity Star re-entered Earth's atmosphere and burned up in March 2018. On 11 November 2018, the first commercial launch (third launch in total) of Electron occurred from Mahia Peninsula carrying satellites for Spire Global, GeoOptics, a CubeSat built by high school students, and a prototype of a dragsail.
On 4 July 2020, an issue during the second-stage burn of flight 13, named "Pics or It Didn't Happen", caused Electron to fail to get into orbit and its payloads were lost.
On 19 November 2020 a successful launch mission named "Return to Sender" deployed its payload of 29 smallsats into orbit. In addition to satellite deployment, a new method of the first stage recovery was successfully implemented. "After stage separation, the first stage will reorient itself for reentry, then deploy a drogue parachute and a larger main parachute before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean about 400 kilometers from the launch site."
Photon satellite busEdit
Based on Rocket Lab's Electron kick stage, Photon is a satellite bus. It uses the Curie engine and communicates on S-band. Depending on the orbital inclination (37° to Sun-synchronous orbit), it is expected to have a maximum payload capacity of 170 kg (370 lb). In October 2019, Rocket Lab announced plans to use Photon to launch small payloads into lunar orbit as soon as fourth quarter 2020. A modified version of Photon would have bigger propellant tanks and the HyperCurie engine for interplanetary missions. The low Earth orbit version of Photon can take 130 kg (290 lb) to Sun-synchronous orbit. The interplanetary version will have a 40 kg (88 lb) payload capacity. HyperCurie is an evolution of the Curie engine, which comes in a monopropellent version and a bipropellant version, while the HyperCurie is a hypergolic version. HyperCurie is electrically pumped.
The first satellite to use Photon bus (or a demo-version of it) was the First Light satellite (COSPAR ID 2020-060A), Rocket Lab's first in-house designed and built Photon demonstration satellite. It was launched aboard Electron rocket on 31 August 2020 on the 14th Electron mission "I Can't Believe It's Not Optical". On that mission, the Electron rocket lifted the First Light and the customer satellite, Capella 2, to orbit; then the First Light satellite, acting in the capacity of a kick stage (final rocket stage which inserts the payload satellite into desired orbit), inserted the customer satellite into its orbit and then went on to begin its own orbital mission as a standalone satellite. First Light thus had a dual role in the mission: first as the final rocket stage delivering the customer satellite and then as a standalone satellite. The purpose of First Light standalone mission is to demonstrate the new (as compared to "plain" kick stage) systems for operating in orbit as a long-duration standalone satellite. To demonstrate Photon bus' payload hosting, the First Light had a low-resolution video camera.
Viscous liquid monopropellantEdit
In 2012, Rocket Lab demonstrated a rocket propelled by a Viscous Liquid Monopropellant (VLM) developed in work sponsored by DARPA and the Office of Naval Research (NRL). The VLM was reported to be thixotropic, so that it behaves as a pseudo solid until a shear force is applied, at which point it flows like a liquid. The VLM was reported to have a density comparable to solid-rocket fuels, with a specific gravity of about 1.72, whereas the specific gravity of liquid rocket fuels was reported to rarely be above 1. The VLM reportedly required no special handling, was non-toxic, water soluble, had low sensitivity to shock, a high ignition point, and was barely flammable in atmosphere. Rocket Lab has been issued US patent US20120234196A1 on a Viscous Liquid Monopropellant which discloses additional details.
In October 2018, Rocket Lab revealed their new manufacturing facility in Auckland, New Zealand. It is intended for the production of propellant tanks and stage builds, and is in charge of the overall integration of launch vehicles for Launch Complex 1. The company's headquarters in Long Beach, California, produce the Rutherford engines and avionics.
Launch Complex 1Edit
After encountering difficulty in obtaining resource consent for the Kaitorete Spit launch site, Rocket Lab announced in November 2015 that its primary launch site would be on the Mahia Peninsula, east of Wairoa in the North Island, New Zealand. The site is licensed to launch rockets every 72 hours for 30 years. Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 (LC-1A) was officially opened on 26 September 2016 (UTC; 27 September NZDT). As of July 2020[update], a second pad on Mahia Peninsula named Launch Complex 1B is under construction.
Launch Complex 2Edit
In October 2018, after several months of search, the company announced their selection of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility as their second launch site. The site was chosen for a number of factors: the speed and ease in which the new pad could be built due to infrastructure readiness, the low number of launches from other companies, and the location's ability to supplement orbital inclinations provided by LC-1. It is expected to be capable of monthly launches serving US government and commercial missions. Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) is located within the fence line of MARS Launch Pad 0A. In December 2019, construction of the launch pad was completed and Rocket Lab inaugurated the LC-2.
The first flight of Electron from LC-2 is expected in October 2020.
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Although Rocket Lab's engines and avionics are built in Huntington Beach, California, the final assembly of the vehicle is done here in Auckland–A fitting choice, as they're currently only launching from their Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, some 500 km away
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