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Rocket Lab All Set For First Commercial Launch By End Of June 2018

Rocket Lab’s Electron ‘Still Testing’ launch vehicle lifts off from its New Zealand launch pad on 21 January, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Rocket Lab.

U.S. based commercial space launch company Rocket Lab is getting ready for its first commercial launch, which is scheduled to take off from New Zealand in late June 2018.

This U.S. spaceflight startup has scheduled new dates for its first commercial launch: a mission dubbed “It’s Business Time” which will launch via its small rocket, the Electron, between 23 June and 6 July 2018.

Taking off from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launchpad and carrying five small satellites to orbit for customers, the launch of the Electron will begin a busy year of commercial operations for the launch provider. This mission, originally scheduled for April, was postponed due to a problem with a critical motor responsible for controlling the pumps inside the engines in the rocket. “It’s been a really tough one to determine the root cause,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said. “It wasn’t particularly obvious.”

According to Beck, while the problem was being fixed, Rocket Lab decided to add two more satellites to the manifest for the mission. In addition to the two small Lemur-2 satellites made by Spire Global, and another satellite made by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, it will also include a research satellite built by students and a special test satellite that will demonstrate a flat, reflective sail. This technology will help the satellite get dragged down to Earth faster, which could then help clear satellites from space when their missions are complete.

This will be the third launch for Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle. It completed two successful test launches: in May 2017 and January 2018. The first rocket did not reach orbit due to a problem with communications equipment. The second test launch achieved orbit and inserted three satellites, as well as the controversial sphere satellite named Humanity Star, designed by Rocket Lab’s CEO, and intended as part of a space-based art project aimed at inspiring people to look up at the sky.

Once this first commercial flight is launched, Rocket Lab will continue with a full schedule. “There’s no space available in 2018, and we’re putting more flights on in 2019 to allow for more space,” Beck told The Verge. The next scheduled mission will launch 11 standardized CubeSats for NASA.

Rocket Lab’s primary rocket is relatively small: the Electron is 16.8 meters tall and is capable of putting between 150 and 230 kilograms of cargo into low Earth orbit. In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is just over 70 meters tall and can put 22,680 kilograms into the same orbit. This smaller size supports Rocket Lab’s goal to be a dedicated launcher of small satellites; it hopes to capitalise on the small satellite revolution, where manufacturers are making spacecraft smaller and faster than ever before. It also aims to get satellites into orbit as quickly as possible, eventually getting to a point where the company can launch every 72 hours.

For now, their private launch pad in New Zealand is licensed to launch once every three days, and Rocket Lab is aiming for one launch per month by the end of 2018. “We’ll get to one a month pretty quickly, but even the time it’s taken us to go from a test flight to full commercial — from an industry standpoint — is very rapid,” Beck said.

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