Small satellites, big dreams: New Zealand flirts with private space

Small satellites, big dreams: New Zealand flirts with private space

California-based Rocket Lab has earmarked a ten-day window beginning Monday to launch its first space rocket from New Zealand’s Mahia

Photo: Rocket Lab

Photo: Rocket Lab

California-based Rocket Lab has earmarked a ten-day window beginning Monday to launch its first space rocket from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula—population: 800.

The Electron rocket is designed to deliver multiple small satellites to orbit for less than $5 million a pop—a fraction of the $100 million or more usually paid by NASA. The development is part of a trend towards low-cost, light-payload capabilities. In February, India put a record-breaking 104 micro-satellites into orbit during a single launch. Meanwhile, private firms Virgin Orbit and Vector Space Systems are also working on similar programs.

Rocket Lab’s operations could bring some $1.5 billion to New Zealand over the next 20 years. Wellington is rushing to pass the ‘Outer Space and High-Altitude Activities Bill’ by the end of 2017 in the hopes of luring space entrepreneurs and securing a larger piece of the $400 billion global space market.

While the coming mission is merely a test, Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck says he’s hopeful of launching a rocket a week from the Mahia Peninsula once commercial activities begin later this year. But with 20,000 sensors to monitor on the day of launch—and a single red light aborting the mission—Rocket Lab has its work cut out for it.