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Rocket Lab has SpaceX in its sights

June 17, 2020

There’s a new rocket launch company making headlines. Rocket Lab, founded in 2006 and originally based in Auckland, New Zealand (where it still makes its rockets), has SpaceX’s frequency and some of its client list in its sights.

Rocket Lab is headed by c0-founder Peter Beck, who currently serves as the company’s CEO and CTO. With its HQ now in Long Beach, California, it launched its 12th successful mission on June 13th using its Electron rocket, with a 13th flight scheduled for July 3rd.

As an aside privately funded Rocket Lab has taken to snappily naming its missions. The June 13th launch was named Don’t Stop Me Now to honour a board member and Queen fan, Scott Smith, who had passed away. The July 3rd launch is named Pics Or It Didn’t Happen.

Currently, Rocket Lab is specialising in launching smallish satellites from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula where it has its main launch site. But Beck wants to raise the launch rate to one a month and ideally one launch every 18 days or so.

Beck’s admitted model is that of Henry Ford and his low-cost cars; Make them in a simple fashion, keep them affordable, and thus sell a huge amount.

Rocket Lab has already won contracts from NASA and the US Space Force. It isn’t targeting heavy geostationary satellites but the growing demand for smaller satellites (150-225 kgs) with Internet of Things, Earth Observation and similar tasks. Canon Electronics, for example, will use Rocket Lab for a demo-satellite for Earth imaging, wide-angle cameras and a hope that mass-manufacture of the satellite system could follow.

Rocket Lab is also echoing SpaceX in recovering its main booster. Not by floating an expensive barge into the ocean but by using a helicopter to recover the rocket. Rocket Lab is also building a US launch site at NASA’s Wallop Island Flight Facility and its Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.  The site is already being used by NASA for supply missions to the International Space Station.

One key appeal for customers is a low launch cost. Rocket Lab will launch a satellite for a fraction of SpaceX’s costs.  A shared multi-satellite mission could cost as low as $5 million per launch. SpaceX charges around $60 million – albeit for a much heavier total cargo.

“Rocket Lab has eliminated the small sat waiting room for orbit. We’ve focused heavily on shoring up our rapid launch capability in recent years and we’re proud to be putting that into practice for the small sat community with launches just days apart,” said Beck.

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