In the summer of 2017, the company Rocket Lab officially tossed its hat into the commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) ring with the first test flights of their two-stage Electron Rocket. Dedicated to providing cost-effective launch services for the small satellite market, the company began conducting commercial launches from their complexes in New Zealand and California using the lightweight Electron.
Looking to cut the costs associated with individual launches further, Rocket Lab has decided to pursue reusability as well. In early March, before the isolation orders were issued, the company achieved a major milestone when it conducted a successful mid-air recovery of the test stage of an Electron Rocket – which involved a helicopter catching the test stage after its parachute deployed.
In 2006, Peter Beck founded the US and New Zealand-based aerospace company Rocket Lab with the vision of reducing the costs of individual launches. Whereas companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have sought to do this through the development of reusable rockets, Beck’s vision was to create a launch service that would use small rockets to send light payloads into orbit with regular frequency.
However, in a recent statement, Mr. Beck revealed that his company plans to begin recovering and reusing the first stage of its Electron launch vehicle. This change in direction will allow Rocket Lab to further increase the frequency of its launches by eliminating the need to build first stage rockets from scratch for every individual mission.
This past weekend, the New Zealand-based aerospace company Rocket Lab reached another milestone. On Sunday, January 21st, the company conducted the second launch – the first having taken place this past summer – of its Electron booster. This two-stage, lightweight rocket is central to the company’s vision of reducing the costs of individual launches by sending light payloads to orbit with regular frequency.
This mission was also important because it was the first time that the company sent payloads into orbit. In addition to several commercial payloads, the launch also sent a secret payload into orbit at the behest of the company’s founder (Peter Beck). It is known as the “Humanity Star“, a disco-like geodesic sphere that measures 1 meter (3.3 ft) in diameter and will form a bright spot in the sky that will be visible to people on Earth.
The Humanity Star is central to Beck’s vision of how space travel can improve the lives of people here on Earth. In addition to presenting extensive opportunities for scientific research, there is also the way it fosters a sense of unity between people and nations. This is certainly a defining feature of the modern space age, where cooperation has replaced competition as the main driving force.
As Beck explained to ArsTechnica in an interview before the launch:
“The whole point of the program is to get everybody looking up at the star, but also past the star into the Universe, and reflect about the fact that we’re one species, on one planet. This is not necessarily part of the Rocket Lab program; it’s more of a personal program. It’s certainly consistent with our goal of trying to democratize space.”
Like the Electron rocket, the Humanity Sphere is made of carbon fiber materials and it’s surface consists of 65 highly-reflective panels. Once it reaches an orbit of 300 by 500 km (186 by 310 mi), it will spend the next nine months there reflecting the light of the Sun back to Earth. Whether or not it will be visible to the naked eye remains to be seen, but Rocket Lab is confident it will be.
According to Beck, the sphere will be more visible than a Iridium flare, which are easily spotted from the surface. These flares occur when the solar panels or antennae of an Iridium satellite reflect sunlight in orbit. “Most people will be familiar with the Iridium flares, and this has got much, much more surface area than an Iridium flare,” Beck said. “In theory, it will be easy to find.”
Beck got the idea for the project from talking to people about where they live. In his experience, people tend to think of their locality or nationality when they think of home. Whereas many people he had spoken to were aware that they lived on planet Earth, they were oblivious to where the Earth resided in the Solar System or the Universe at large. In this respect, the Humanity Sphere is meant to encourage people to look and think beyond.
As he states on the website the company created for the Humanity Sphere:
“For millennia, humans have focused on their terrestrial lives and issues. Seldom do we as a species stop, look to the stars and realize our position in the universe as an achingly tiny speck of dust in the grandness of it all.
“Humanity is finite, and we won’t be here forever. Yet in the face of this almost inconceivable insignificance, humanity is capable of great and kind things when we recognize we are one species, responsible for the care of each other, and our planet, together. The Humanity Star is to remind us of this.
“No matter where you are in the world, rich or in poverty, in conflict or at peace, everyone will be able to see the bright, blinking Humanity Star orbiting Earth in the night sky. My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important.
“Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with.”
The Humanity Star can also be tracked via the website. As of the penning of this article, it is moving south of the equator and should be visible to those living along the west coast of South America. So if you live in Colombia, Peru or Chile, look to the western skies and see if you can’t spot this moving star. After passing south over Antarctica, it will reemerge in the night skies over Central Asia.
Without a doubt, the Humanity Sphere is an inspired creation, and one which is in good company. Who can forget the “Blue Marble” picture snapped by the Apollo 17 astronauts, or Voyager 1‘s “pale blue dot” photo? And even for those who are too young to have witnessed it, the images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting foot on the Moon still serve to remind us of how far we’ve come, and how much still awaits us out there.
Earlier this week, the island nation of New Zealand accomplished a historic first. On Wednesday, May 24th at 16:20 p.m. NZST – 00:20 a.m. EDT; May 23rd, 21:20 p.m. PDT – the country joined the small club of nations that have space launch capability. Taking off from a launch pad located on the Mahia Peninsula (on the North Island), the test flight was also a first for the US/NZ-based company Rocket Lab.
With the successful launch of their test rocket, Rocket Lab has become the latest aerospace firm to join a burgeoning market, where private companies are able to provide regular launch services to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Whereas other companies like SpaceX are looking to restore domestic heavy-launch capability, companies like Rocket Lab are looking to fill a niche market which would make space more accessible.
The launch was originally pushed back to this past Wednesday, which was the fourth day in a ten-day launch window (running from May 21st to May 30th), due to bad weather. And while no spectators or media outlets were permitted to witness the event, the company recorded the launch and posted it to their website and official Twitter account (shown below).
Though the rocket did not quite reach orbit, it successfully flew along the trajectory that future launches will follow. This test launch was the first of three planned, and carried sensor equipment rather than a conventional payload in order to let engineers on the ground gather data on the flight. As chief executive Peter Beck said in a statement after the rocket took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1:
“It was a great flight. We had a great first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing separation. 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 to accelerate the commercial phase of our program, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business.”
The rocket in question was a prototype disposable vehicle known as the Electron rocket. This two-stage rocket is composed of carbon fiber, which allows for durability and reduced weight, and is manufactured in-house. It also relies on a “plug-in payload” design that allows for the separation of the main assembly and payload integration processes.
In short, in the future, customers will be able to load the payload fairing themselves at their own facilities. This is especially useful wherever environmentally-controlled or sealed cargo is involved. They will then be able to have the second stage transported to the Rocket Lab facility for integration. This design is also intended to allow for flexibility, where the launch vehicle can be tailored to meet specific mission requirements.
The first stage of the vehicle is powered by nine Rutherford engines – an oxygen/kerosene pump-fed engine designed and built by Rocket Lab – while the second stage is powered by a single Rutherford. In addition to reducing mass, the engine is also the first oxygen/kerosene engine to make use of 3-D printed components. Each engine offers a liftoff thrust of 18 kilo Newtons, or 4000 pound-force (lbf), and a peak thrust (in vacuum) of 22 kN (41,500 lbf).
Once testing is complete, Rocket Lab intends to maintain a fleet of these rockets, which will be capable of launching payloads of between 150 and 225 kg (330 to 496 lbs) to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit. With these parameters in mind, Rocket Lab is clearly aiming to cater to telecommunications companies, internet providers, research institutions and universities.
In short, small satellites are a fast-growing market, but the current space launch environment can be prohibitive to small companies and researchers. As it stands, booking a space launch is a complicated matter, subject to flight schedules, the availability of cargo space, and costs that are outside of many customers’ price range. By developing rockets that are relatively cheap and can be built quickly, those looking to launch small satellite will have increased options.
“We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. We’ve worked tirelessly to get to this point,” said Beck. “We’ve developed everything in house, built the world’s first private orbital launch range, and we’ve done it with a small team.
New Zealand was selected as the location of the company’s launch facility for a number of reasons. Compared to the US and other potential launch sites, New Zealand has less air traffic, which ensures that air carriers don’t need to reroute their flights during a launch. The country is also well-situated to get satellites into a north-to-south orbit around Earth, and launches take place over open water (away from population centers).
On top of that, Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck is a native of New Zealand. In the coming weeks, the company he founded will be looking over its test flight data to prepare for its second test launch, which will take place in a few months. This launch will attempt to reach orbit and maximize the payload the rocket can carry. All told, Rocket Lab has three test flights scheduled for 2017.
Once the company reaches full production, they hope to be conducting a record-setting 50 to 120 launches a year. If possible, this will significantly reduce the costs associated with small payload launches.
“We have learnt so much through this test launch and will learn even more in the weeks to come,” said Beck. “We’re committed to making space accessible and this is a phenomenal milestone in that journey. The applications doing this will open up are endless. Known applications include improved weather reporting, Internet from space, natural disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data as well as search and rescue services.”
Rocket Lab is joined by companies like ARCA, which is seeking to lower the costs of small-payload launches through the development of single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rockets. Their SSTO rocket concept, known as the Haas 2CA, was unveiled in March and is scheduled to begin launch testing next year.
Be sure to check out this video of the launch as well, courtesy of Rocket Lab: