Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has just soared into the history books, making New Zealand just the eleventh nation to achieve satellite launch capability — although uniquely in the world, this was not a government operation, but a strictly private one. Arguably, Rocket Lab is even more private than SpaceX, as they do not lease a launch facility from a government agency — they own it outright, and built it all themselves. (The first purely commercial rocket, Pegasus, technically also has a privately operated launch facility, the L-1011 Tristar named “Stargazer”. But to date it has operated exclusively out of government airfields, as it’s easier for the materials handling issues that come up with a big solid-propellant rocket.) The vehicle, nicknamed “Still Testing”, was their second attempt, after an attempt last year (nicknamed “It’s A Test”) ended in a deliberate destruction due to telemetry loss during ascent. It carried three Cubesats to orbit, and the ambition is to free Cubesats from needing to piggyback along with bigger vehicles that just happen to be going to a mostly-acceptable orbital inclination, as Electron aims to be cheap enough for just a few Cubesats to pay for the mission. Time will tell if that’s achievable, but Cubesat operators such as Planet Labs (who flew a Dove imaging satellite on this mission) and Spire Global (who flew two of their Lemur communications satellites on this mission) seem confident. The launch site on Mahia Peninsula offers a very impressive range of orbital inclinations, promising to place smallsats anywhere from 31 degrees to polar orbits.
Here’s the official webcast; skip ahead to 14:50 for the exciting bits. 😉