Tuesday 25 June 2019

New Zealand test rocket makes it to space but not into orbit

The Electron rocket about to launch in New Zealand (Rocket Lab via AP)
The Electron rocket about to launch in New Zealand (Rocket Lab via AP)

US company Rocket Lab has launched a test rocket into space from New Zealand, but it did not reach orbit as hoped.

The California-based firm said on Thursday that its Electron rocket lifted off at 4.20pm local time and reached space three minutes later.

"It has been an incredible day and I'm immensely proud of our talented team," company founder Peter Beck said in a statement.

Mr Beck, a New Zealander, said the early stages of the mission went well.

"We didn't quite reach orbit and we'll be investigating why; however, reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position," he said.

Rocket Lab was given official approval last week to carry out three test launches from the remote Mahia Peninsula on the North Island.

The company hopes to begin commercial launches later this year and eventually launch about one rocket every week.

It said it will target getting to orbit on the second test and will look to carry the maximum payload.

New Zealand has never had a space programme but officials hope regular launches could change perceptions of the South Pacific nation and generate hundreds of millions of dollars each year in revenue.

Rocket Lab plans to keep costs low by using lightweight, disposable rockets with 3D-printed engines. It sees an emerging market in delivering lots of small devices into low Earth orbit. The satellites would be used for everything from monitoring crops to providing internet service.

Politicians are rushing through new space laws and the government has set up a boutique space agency, which employs 10 people.

"So far, it's only superpowers that have gone into space," Simon Bridges, New Zealand's economic development minister, told the Associated Press last week. "For us to do it, and be in the first couple of handfuls of countries in the world, is pretty impressive."

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket is unusual in many respects. It carries only a small payload of about 331lb (150kg). It's made from carbon fibre and uses an electric engine. Rocket Lab says each launch will cost just 5 million US dollars (£3.9 million), a tiny fraction of a typical rocket launch.

It is a different plan from some other space companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX, which uses larger rockets to carry bigger payloads.

Rocket Lab was founded by Mr Beck and is privately held. The company has received about 150 million US dollars (£115.7 million) in venture capital funding.


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