Most commercial rockets have a carbo capacity measured in tons, but the new Electron launch vehicle from Rocket Lab is designed for lighter duty. This rocket can haul just 150 kg (331 pounds) into orbit, but it’s cheap and small — really, look how cute and little it is. Rocket Lab is still working out the kinks with the Electron, but it successfully launched the first rocket from its New Zealand facility today. There was no payload and the rocket didn’t quite reach orbit, but the company is still calling it a win.
The rocket, dubbed “It’s a Test,” lifted off from the Mahia Peninsula on the North Island of New Zealand in the early afternoon of May 25th local time. The first stage climbed as expected, reaching space before something went wrong with the second stage. The second stage separated and ignited, but what exactly happened after that is unknown right now. Thus, it didn’t have enough power to reach orbit. The company is looking into the specifics, but reaching space on its very first launch isn’t bad.
Electron is tiny as rockets go at just 17 meters tall. That’s much smaller than the Falcon 9 (68 meters tall) or Atlas V (58 meters tall), and that means it has a correspondingly small payload capacity. Electron is never going to hoist a full-size communication satellite into orbit, but it’s great for launching smaller devices like CubeSats. Currently, anyone wanting to get one of these microsatellites into orbit has to wait for space to be available aboard a larger rocket, but the Electron could launch more quickly and cheaply. The total cost of a launch is just $ 5 million, compared with $ 62 million for a Falcon 9.
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLabUSA) May 25, 2017
Unlike the larger Falcon 9, Electron is a completely expendable launch vehicle. The relatively low cost of the rocket means little would be saved by recovering and refurbishing it for another launch. It’s easier to just build another little rocket, and Rocket Lab expects to build a lot of them. The company would like to have approximately 50 launches per year, many of which will take place at the New Zealand “Mini Launcher.” That location is ideal for getting payloads into a polar orbit, which is essential for scanning the entire surface of Earth.
The aptly named It’s a Test is only the first of three test launches for Electron. The next one is expected in a few months, and Rocket Lab is hoping to be ready for real launch operations late in 2017. It won’t be doing the big, glamorous missions like SpaceX, but Rocket Lab could make space more accessible to small companies and startups.