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Rocket Lab’s Electron takes flight

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket soars out of New Zealand on its maiden flight. While the vehicle did not achieve orbit, the company hopes the data returned will allow it to go orbital on its next flight sometime this summer. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket soars out of New Zealand on its maiden flight. While the vehicle did not achieve orbit, the company hopes the data returned will allow the company to go orbital on its next launch sometime this summer. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

After a few days of weather delays, Rocket Lab’s first Electron rocket finally took flight from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Liftoff of the mission, dubbed “It’s a Test”, took place at 4:20 p.m. New Zealand Time (12:20 a.m. EDT / 04:20 GMT), May 25, 2017. Several minutes later, the Electron rocket reached space and nearly reached orbit.

“Made it to space,” Rocket Lab’s official Twitter account posted, which was at the time the only indication the launch had taken place as there was no live stream available. “Team delighted. More to come.”

The Rocket Lab’s mission is to provide frequent and reliable access to low-Earth orbit for small satellites, such as CubeSats. To do that, the company has been developing the two-stage, 56-foot (17-meter), Rutherford engine-powered Electron rocket over the last several years.

“It has been an incredible day and I’m immensely proud of our talented team,” said Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck in a statement. “We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. We’ve developed everything in-house, built the world’s first private orbital launch range, and we’ve done it with a small team.”

A view of the second stage engine shortly after the first stage separated. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

A view of the second stage engine shortly after the first stage separated. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

The Electron rocket transmitted onboard video from a rear facing camera. This flight demonstrates Rocket Lab as a company that intends to compete with Blue Origin, SpaceX, and others in securing paying clientele interested in putting lightweight cargo into space. While this test did not achieve orbit, the flight will provide a plethora of data for engineers to pore over for days and weeks to come.

The data will provide insight into what appeared to be a successful first stage burn, followed by a stage separation and second stage ignition, and a fairing separation. However, the intended orbit was not quite achieved with this early test flight. Rocket Lab is confident that implemented optimizations with the Electron architecture and further test flights will “make space open for business”.

The high-performance electric propellant pump, along with its Rutherford engine design, is intended to open a new pathway to access the widest range of orbital azimuths. Those orbital azimuths are achievable from Launch Complex 1 due to the fact that it is located on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand at 39.26 degrees south and 177.87 degrees east.

The ground was broken on this geographic location in December 2015 and was officially opened Sept. 26, 2016. Launch Complex 1 is intended and licensed to provide the company opportunity for a launch cadence in the 50–150 margin per year. There were 22 launches last year from the United States and 82 internationally, per Rocket Lab’s website.

Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck had stated, “We’re not going to fly until we’re ready.” Several days of inclement weather prevented a launch near the opening of a 10-day window, including high triboelectrification, more commonly known as static electricity, which could have created problems in transmitting data back to ground stations.

Video courtesy of Rocket Lab

When it did get off the ground, the view at the launchpad, covered in a green vegetation with the Pacific Ocean off in the background, was blanketed in cloud cover – making for a dramatic first image of flight as Electron cleared launch facility infrastructure. With Electron’s camera staring back at the launch complex, the cloud cover looked extensive but all weather conditions fell within the launch criteria parameters.

Rocket Lab has scheduled three test flights for this year and intends to achieve orbit with the now upcoming second test flight. Both the planned second and third test flights are slated for sometime in the summer of 2017, but they will be dependent upon what is learned from the 25,000 channels of data collected during the maiden flight.

Rocket Lab announced back in March it had closed a $75 million Series D financing round to further its research and development, and secure future development. The financing was led by Data Collective along with additional investors Promus Ventures and an undisclosed investor. The existing investors have also renewed their participation and they include Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, and K1W1. This means the total funding invested in the small company totals $148 million to date, resulting in a company valuation now in excess of $1 billion.

Video courtesy of Rocket Lab



Jerome Strach has worked within the Silicon Valley community for 20 years including software entertainment and film. Along with experience in software engineering, quality assurance, and middle management, he has long been a fan of aerospace and entities within that industry. A voracious reader, a model builder, and student of photography and flight training, most of his spare time can be found focused on launch events and technology advancements including custom mobile app development. Best memory as a child is building and flying Estes rockets with my father. @Romn8tr

Reader Comments

Very interesting article and pictures.

David VomLehn

The article implies that the available orbital inclinations will be interesting, but doesn’t actually say what can be reached. This is going to be dependent on payload weight, assuming all other things are held constant, but has Rocket Lab given more info?

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