Rocket Lab, the venture capital-backed space start up, is constructing the first private launch range in the world. The company told TechCrunch that they have secured Spire as their next customer for a launch later this year.
While Rocket Lab has yet to fly their first commercial mission, Spire has made an agreement with the launch provider for an impressive 12 launches over the next 18 months once their launch facility is complete.
With companies like SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Arianespace dominating the launch market, it’s hard to believe that there’s room for a new launch provider. But satellite technology has gotten smaller and cheaper over the years, lowering the barrier to entry into the space industry.
More companies have been able to affordably design and build their own small satellites, or satellite constellations, and are looking for launches to get their products into orbit.
The increased number of small satellite owners brings a more diverse set of needs when it comes to launches. Unfortunately for small satellite owners, they usually have to “piggy back” onto heavy-lift rockets whose primary mission is to bring a larger, more expensive satellite to a specific orbit.
When forced to rideshare, it can be difficult for small satellite companies to easily get where they need to go. Rocket Lab has created the Electron rocket, designed to bring small satellites to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), to fill this need.
Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, told TechCrunch “Rocket Lab is providing a dedicated service to orbits specific to our customer’s requirements. It’s the difference between the bus and a taxi, except our taxi happens to be better priced than the bus.”
Rocket Lab is based in Los Angeles, but is building their launch pad and production facilities in New Zealand. Their other customers include NASA and even Moon Express, which purchased 3 launches to the moon in an effort to win the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Moon Express’ launches are schedule to begin in 2017.
Rocket Lab’s latest customer, Spire, plans to launch a constellation of 100 satellites designed to provide solutions for maritime intelligence and weather monitoring systems. For the maritime market, Spire’s satellites would assist with maritime law enforcement by providing near-real time signal intelligence anywhere on Earth.
Peter Platzer, CEO of Spire, told TechCrunch that their satellite constellation would be able to identify a stolen vessel with beacon tracking from orbit.
Once pirates enter a tanker, they turn off its automatic beacon and drive the tanker away to steal the goods on board. With their satellite constellation in place, Spire could detect a missing beacon signal within minutes and then identify that location and track the ship as it drives away.
“Its the difference between relying on your neighbours to alert the police if someone breaks into your home when you are away, and having a silent alarm linked directly to the police.” – Peter Platzer, Spire CEO
Platzer told TechCrunch that they opted to fly with Rocket Lab because they were able to fit their launch needs more precisely than alternative launch providers.
Platzer said, “As use cases, sizes, orbit requirements, launch requirements for satellites are changing, there is a need for a more differentiated offering from launch service providers.”
Rocket Lab is certainly an attractive option to small satellite companies who want rides to specific orbits that would be difficult to obtain through traditional, more established launch providers. However, the company has yet to prove the most coveted capability in the launch industry: launch reliability.
The company’s success will hinge on their ability to keep their prices competitive while consistently launching failure-free missions.
Rocket Lab hopes to launch their Electron rocket for $4.9 million per flight with, eventually, one launch per week. It’s an entirely different business model than someone like SpaceX whose Falcon 9 is estimated at $60 million per launch and completed 6 successful launches in 2015.
In order to achieve this price and launch frequency, Rocket Lab has focused on creating and manufacturing their entire rocket in-house and building their own launch facility. They’ve even designed and developed their own 3D printed electrically-pumped engine which they’ve been testing for several years.
The price of a rocket, however, becomes a moot point if a small satellite company can’t be confident that their product will launch successfully. These next few years will be important for Rocket Lab to prove that their price and launch frequency are obtainable feats.
The New Zealand launch pad is scheduled to be completed by the end of the first quarter in 2016. Once complete, Rocket Lab will begin test flights of Electron in preparation for their first commercial missions.