Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck says while successfully reaching orbit and deploying payloads this year was a significant milestone for the company, transitioning from this to regular, streamlined production and launch operations cements Rocket Lab's position as leader in the small launch industry. It put into orbit six small satellites on a commercial basis, and experimental vehicle created to test technologies for dealing with space debris.
A historic day for Rocket Lab - launching its first fully loaded commercial rocket in space.
The launch occurred at 4:50pm local time (03:50 UTC) on Sunday, from New Zealand's Māhia Peninsula.
The catch for Rocket Lab's customers is that the cost of putting a payload into space on a rocket where the payload is the sole occupant is more expensive than using a SpaceX Falcon 9 and hitching a ride with other payloads. The Curie third stage also carried a drag sail technology demonstrator, named NABEO, which will attempt to passively de-orbit inactive small satellites and reduce space junk.
The Mahia launch is being commanded from Rocket Lab's new rocket factory in Mount Wellington, Auckland. Instead, the Electron's secret sauce comes from its 3D-printed engines, lightweight composite materials and unique battery-powered fuel pumps.
Space Angels, a space-business investment firm, is tracking 150 small launch companies. The Electron Rocket of theirs has nicknamed "It's Business Time".
There are many budding competitors to Rocket Lab (they include a Richard Branson effort that will launch rockets an "airborne platform" - or a modified Boeing 747). Another consideration is that smaller rockets don't cost near as much as a bigger one. Its remote location should allow Rocket Lab to launch frequently - the company hopes to get to one launch a week and then to one every three days - as air and boat traffic are relatively low.
Sunday's Rocket Lab mission included payloads for customers like Spire Global, which collects data about ships and planes around the globe, and Fleet Space Technologies, which aims to connect remote devices to the internet. "With the Electron launch vehicle, rapid and reliable access to space is now a reality for small satellites", he explains.