American-New Zealand aerospace company Rocket Lab seeks to blast off its Electron rocket from the quiet Mahia Peninsula during a 10-day window that supposedly begins Monday, May 22.
High winds on Sunday, May 21, however, prevented the planned rollout and launch preparations and delayed them until Tuesday, May 23, as Rocket Lab tweeted. The launch, which was four years in the making, was expected to face postponements given the need for optimal conditions.
Excitement Is In The Air
Mahia, a country settlement with less than 800 inhabitants, suddenly saw itself in the center of the nation’s space aspirations.
“If we get to orbit on the first flight, we will have done something most countries have never achieved,” said Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck, adding the vehicle will be ready by the next 1.5 weeks.
It’s not a simple case of launch, however, as the ideal conditions involve radar and weather balloons for measuring wind velocities as well as air pressures both at ground and high levels. New Zealand’s weather, too, is known for being complicated, making it difficult to pinpoint an exact launch date.
The company has just moved from ground testing to a flight test program, said Beck. A “dress rehearsal” was performed last Tuesday, May 16, where the launch was done right up to ignition phase, including closing airspace and fueling the rocket.
“There’s over 20,000 sensors that we’re monitoring,” explained Beck. “And if any of those sensors turn red then we won’t fly.”
Rocket Lab’s Desired Spot In The Space Industry
Beck’s company seeks to offer “lightweight, cost-effective commercial rocket launch services” to the small satellite segment.
It caters to pretty much the same market targeted by Vector Space, now in small-scale suborbital tests and with plans to enter the launch market in 2018, with a dedicated launch system removing the ride-sharing compulsories on the larger launch firms.
The company, which lists its intended service with Electron as $4.9 million worth per flight, started its orbital launch ambitions some 11 years ago. Its foray into rocket flight took place three years after its founding, via the launch of the Atea-1 suborbital sounding rocket.
This rocket stood 20 feet tall, weighed 132 pounds upon liftoff, and can carry a 4.5-pound payload as high as 74.5 miles.
What happened with Atea-1? It flew for the first (and only) time in November 2009 from New Zealand, and liftoff came more than seven hours behind schedule due to fueling issues. Rocket Lab was quick to claim that it had reached the internationally set boundary to space, rendering the company the first in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space.
The rocket, however, had no telemetry downlink, was untracked by ground-based assets, and was unrecovered, among many things. As a result, it proved impossible to verify the actual claim that the rocket reached the space, although launch was generally deemed a success.
Rocket Lab proceeded to develop the Electron, which was earlier slated for a 2015 test launch. Mahia Peninsula was favored as launch site for various factors, such as its less interaction with standard aviation routes allowing for a greater flight rate.
The rocket’s liftoff will herald the first time an orbital launch was attempted by a commercial firm from a 100 percent commercial launch site.
Earlier this month, on the other hand, SpaceX appeared to be near the launch phase of its Falcon Heavy rocket, deemed the world’s most powerful today.