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Lift Off, NZ-based Rocket Lab Has Completed First Successful Launch
Upstart Electron rocket has made it to orbit (CCSS Level: Grade 8, Words: 474)
Jan 23, 2018 Science & Technology
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For the first time, Silicon Valley star-up Rocket Lab has fully successfully launched its Electron rocket into orbit. The rocket lifted from the firm's New Zealand launch facility on the Mahia Peninsula on 21 January at 2:43pm local time on Sunday. About eight and a half minutes later, the rocket popped three small commercial satellites into orbit. It marks the first time the Electron has completed a full mission.

During Electron's first flight test in May, the rocket was destroyed when operators lost contact with it and ended the flight before the craft reached orbit. Now that Electron has reached orbit and deployed satellites, Rocket Lab may be able to begin commercial operations in earnest. And there'll be others following hard on the heels of the US/NZ operation.

"Reaching orbit on a second test flight is significant on its own, but successfully deploying customer payloads so early in a new rocket program is almost unprecedented, " Peter Beck, Rocket Lab's CEO, said in a statement. "Rocket lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that."

The three satellites Electron carried to orbit are all Earth observers that are approximately the size of loaves of bread. Such small satellites will be the bread and butter of Rocket Lab's customers. The Electron rocket is designed to launch several relatively small payloads at once, allowing less expensive launches that don't require tiny satellites to hitch a ride along with a more expensive, bigger probe.

Because its purpose is not to carry heavy payloads deep into space, Electron is relatively small. It is about 17 metres tall and can carry up to 225 kilograms into low Earth orbit. For comparison, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is 55 metres tall and can lift about 22,800 kilograms into orbit.

A launch aboard Electron is relatively cheap at only $4.9 million per flight. A Falcon 9 flight costs customers upwards of $60 million. Rocket Lab has customers lining up for their satellites to be launched, including NASA and Moon Express, a competitor for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize to put rovers on the moon.

It's unclear when Rocket Lab will launch next and which customer the company will fly. The company said it will be reviewing the data from this test flight to figure out its next move. But Rocket Lab does have five completed Electron rockets available, and expects to fly again in "early 2018." Eventually, the plan is to launch much more frequently, perhaps once a week, and last weekend's test flight is a big step toward making that happen.

"Today marks the beginning of a new era in commercial access to space," said Beck. "We're thrilled to reach this milestone so quickly after our first test launch."

More: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eg5234BOED8

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