Rocket Lab's Electron rocket took off from a picturesque commercial launch base in New Zealand on Saturday, U.S. time, on a test flight that delivered three CubeSats into orbit on the company's first successful satellite deployment. However, because the launch vehicle is so cheap to manufacture, Rocket Lab can charge $5 million to put a payload into space, placing spaceflight within the range of smaller, less deep-pocketed customers.
Before customers can start flying, Rocket Lab needed to show that the Electron could do its job, and getting to orbit was a key goal of this test. That's why the company's Electron rocket isn't very big itself.
Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck said the launch marked the beginning of a new era in commercial access to space. In the coming weeks Rocket Lab engineers will analyze the data from today's launch to inform future launches. During its first test mission last May, the company managed to get the launch vehicle to space, but it failed to reach orbit due to a telemetry glitch. Its Rutherford rocket engines are created by a 3D printing process.
The launch was later scrubbed as high winds passed over the Mahia Peninsula.
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Then Rocket Lab also had some difficulty getting this second test flight off the ground. The second flight, called "Still Testing", will attempt to place three satellites into orbit, an Earth-imaging Dove satellite for the company Planet, as well as two Lemur-2 weather and ship tracking satellites for Spire Global.
Richard Easther, a professor of physics at the University of Auckland, told Stuff.co.nz that Sunday was a "red-letter day for New Zealand," thanks to the Electron's orbital success. Its smaller size is meant to increase affordability and launch flexibility for customers with smaller payloads.
"We're thrilled to reach this milestone so quickly after our first test launch", Beck said.
Plus, it's unclear when Rocket Lab will launch next and which customer the company will fly. The next launch was expected to take place this year. But Rocket Lab does have five completed Electron rockets available, and expects to fly again in "early 2018".