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Rocket Lab CEO on the Smallsat Race to Space

By | August 24, 2018
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with an Electron rocket. Photo: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck with an Electron rocket. Photo: Rocket Lab

It’s hard luck for the hitchhiker who always seems to be on the road with too few vehicles, and who hardly ever lands a ride to the right place. This has been the fate for many smallsats. The large rockets to piggyback on have usually been aimed at different orbits, and don’t launch frequently enough to adequately enable companies with plans for significant constellations. But the interesting thing about luck is that it can change on you. And this is where we are now — in the fortunate era of the smallsat.

One of the companies helping to change the fate of this new market is Rocket Lab, who has made some big news this year. In January, the California-based start-up successfully launched its flagship Electron rocket to orbit and deployed its first commercial payloads, making it the only fully private, dedicated smallsat launch vehicle to reach orbit so far. The company, again, has news to share — this time of a contract signed this month with Circle Aerospace to provide the Dubai-headquartered company with 10 dedicated Electron launches, the first of which is to lift off in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Circle Aerospace, a new launch brokerage and satellite development company, seeks to boost the smallsat market and promote commercial space for the United Arab Emirates and the five other Arab member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Considering Circle Aerospace’s intentions for commercial space, it’s not surprising that it chose Rocket Lab as the sole launch provider as well as the primary provider of associated mission services for Circle Aerospace’s clients. Similarly, Rocket Lab is committed to fostering unrivalled access to space. In fact, it is Rocket Lab’s mission to open access to space to improve life on Earth, explained the company’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Peter Beck.

“In order to achieve this,” he added, “two important things are needed. A drastic reduction in cost for dedicated launches and increased launch frequency. Currently, the high cost associated with small satellites reaching desired orbits presents a major barrier in the commercialization and exploration of space. This, combined with long lead times to get a satellite on orbit, makes it impossible to be responsive to the rapidly growing and evolving smallsat industry.”

Where is the smallsat market headed?

According to Beck, enabling this market to evolve will see more constellations launched within the next five years to provide vital communications, weather and Earth observation infrastructure, and the growth of more research and innovation in-orbit from educational and commercial organizations. To nurture this developing market, Rocket Lab responded to shackling challenges by creating the Electron, an exclusive small launcher designed to liberate the smallsat market with dedicated, High Frequency (HF) launches.

Boasting the smoothest ride and most precise deployment to orbit for a smallsat, according to Beck, the Electron is the world’s first fully carbon composite orbital launch vehicle powered by 3D-printed, electric pump-fed engines. It is a two-stage vehicle capable of delivering payloads of 150 kilogram to a 500k ilometer Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SOO).

From critical communications to in-orbit innovation, we’ve only just scratched the surface of revolutionary possibilities, added Beck.

“The satellites of today are getting smaller, doing more, and costing less. The really exciting part is not the known applications of smallsats, which already play a significant role in our lives, but the endless possibilities for innovation, and new and exciting technology. The most exciting thing in space hasn’t made it to orbit yet, or even been conceived, but with democratized access to space that possibility has just opened up,” said Beck.

Considering that making space more accessible to all is a major stepping stone to achieving this, it’s clear why this all-Electron 10 launch deal with Circle Aerospace is significant, explained Beck.

he says, “and it’s a real sign of the market growth we’re seeing in smallsats globally.”

Obstacles and rosy outlooks

More is still needed, though. Being committed to the mission of making space more accessible to all isn’t enough, even when armed with the Electron. The simple fact is that a launch vehicle is just one element needed. Without getting all the other elements available and in the right volumes, the market will not see the current and ongoing developments reach fruition. These include the challenges of meeting regulatory and licensing requirements, as well as access to a launch pad that can accommodate increasing launch frequency — something that Rocket Lab has worked hard at solving.

“There are more than 100 small launch vehicles in development, but we’d only expect to see a handful launch and even fewer succeed. The U.S. has limited launch availability due to high volumes of sea and air traffic, which is why we developed the Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, where we’re licensed to launch every 72 hours. Likewise, there are significant regulatory and licensing hurdles to jump through to make it to the pad. Each of these took significant work to overcome, but ultimately we’re now in the unique position of being able to launch more frequently than any other launch provider in history,” said Beck.

From the Mahia-based Launch Complex 1, Rocket Lab can accommodate an unprecedented launch cadence, and reach orbital inclinations from sun-synchronous through to 39 degrees from a single site. Rocket Lab is also developing a second launch pad on U.S. soil to provide unmatched schedule and location freedom.

Rocket Lab is working toward achieving its 2019 goal of a monthly launch cadence, aiming to get to one launch every two weeks by the end of next year.

“From there we’ll keep increasing the cadence until we are launching weekly or more. We’re also in the final stages of selecting our U.S. launch pad, with the first Electron launch scheduled to lift off from U.S. soil in the third quarter of 2019. We are in an exciting new era of smallsat technology, one that’s making life on Earth better, and we’re thrilled to be part of it,” said Beck.