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Rocket Lab nearing completion of world's first private orbital launch site

New Zealand site looks to launch weekly with reduced costs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 11:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 12:39pm

Launching satellites into space could get even cheaper very soon.

Rocket Lab, whose technology aims to propel small satellites into orbit at a fraction of the current industry prices, has nearly completed construction of the world's first private launch site.

Located on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula, the site was designed to "enable the highest frequency of space launches in history," according to Rocket Lab, a US company with a New Zealand subsidiary. Once ready, the site will be home to the company's first set of trials, scheduled for the coming months.

Ten-year old Rocket Lab will be charging US$4.9 million per launch, a significant discount to SpaceX's US$62 million price tag, and hopes to conduct weekly operations.

Its launch vehicle, called the Electron, boasts a battery-powered rocket engine printed on 3D parts that enables the firm to offer such low pricing and frequent trips, Rocket Lab said.

CEO Peter Beck hopes the service will resolve two of the biggest complaints he hears from players in the space industry: frequency and availability of launches.

"This program is about enabling the small satellite industry," Beck told CNBC's 'Squawk Box' on Monday.

"The Electron is now capable of carrying of over 60 per cent of all the satellites that were launched in 2015," he said, noting that the shrinking size of modern satellites allows for the Electron's high capacity.

The model appears to be environmentally friendly too. One launch on the Electron is expected to consume the same amount of fuel as a 737 jet aircraft going from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Beck said.

The Mahia Peninsula offered the ideal conditions for trial space launches, he noted.

"We needed an island-nation that was in the middle of the Pacific to reach all the launch angles we needed, somewhere where we could build our own private range."

Because most US launch sites are federally-owned, it would have been too expensive to conduct regular trials there, Beck added.

A platform weighing around 50 tons was installed on the Mahia site and will be used to erect the Electron from a horizontal to a vertical position and service the vehicle from fueling to launch.

Rocket Lab boasts contracts with both NASA and the US Defense Department but Beck said the vast majority of customers were commercial entities, such as Planet Labs, Moon Express and other small satellite companies.

Rocket Lab and its key suppliers could contribute around US$30 to US$80 million per year in value-add terms to the New Zealand economy if it manages 52 to 120 weekly launches per year, according to a report by consulting firm Sapere Research released in June.

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