Rocket Lab launched its experimental rocket to space for the first time — but didn’t reach orbit

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Aerospace startup Rocket Lab launched its experimental Electron rocket for the first time from New Zealand today — marking the first of three test flights the company hopes to do this year before the vehicle begins commercial launches. While the rocket successfully made it to space three minutes after take off, it “didn’t quite reach orbit” as planned, according to Rocket Lab’s CEO, Peter Beck. The company will be investigating why and will aim for the Electron to get to orbit during its second test flight.

“Reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our program, deliver our customers to orbit, and make space open for business,” Beck said in a statement.

Based in California and New Zealand, Rocket Lab has been developing the Electron rocket for the last four years now. What sets the vehicle apart from other orbital rockets in operation is its size. The Electron is just 55 feet high, making it much tinier than other commercial orbital vehicles like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 or the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V, which tower above 200 feet. That’s because the Electron is squarely aimed at capitalizing on the small satellite market, by sending satellites weighing up to 500 pounds pounds into lower Earth orbit.

Rocket Lab hasn’t just been developing a rocket to achieve this goal, but has also been building an entirely new launch site for the vehicle. The company has its own private launch pad on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, optimized for launching satellites into various lower Earth orbit configurations. Today’s launch, which took off at 12:20AM ET, was the first time a rocket designed to achieve orbit has ever flown out of New Zealand. And it was a good sign that the launch infrastructure that Rocket Lab has built will support flights moving forward.

Additionally, it seems that many of the components on the Electron worked as expected. The main engine burn went as planned, as did stage separation and the separation of the nose cone that encases the payload, according to Beck. The second stage engine, meant to propel the satellite into its intended orbit, had a “great” ignition too. For now, it’s unclear why the vehicle didn’t make it to orbit. Fortunately, the vehicle, aptly named “It’s a Test,” carried numerous sensors which gathered more than 25,000 channels of data. Rocket Lab’s engineers in Los Angeles and New Zealand plan to go through this information to figure out how the Electron can achieve orbit next time.

“We have learnt so much through this test launch and will learn even more in the weeks to come,” said Beck. “We’re committed to making space accessible and this is a phenomenal milestone in that journey.”

Indeed, enthusiasm for Rocket Lab’s services seems to be high — and that may have to do with some attractive pricing. The company hopes to sell its launches for as low as $4.9 million per flight. That could present a more attractive option to small satellite operators who don’t want to hitch a ride on larger orbital flights that costs tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to fly.

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For now, at least, Rocket Lab already boasts some impressive customers. NASA has a launch contract with the company to send a small payload into lower Earth orbit on the Electron. Meanwhile, California-based company Moon Express, a contender in the Google Lunar X Prize, has booked three Electron rides to help ensure that its lunar lander will get to the Moon’s surface — hopefully before the competition’s deadline by the end of the year. Beyond that, many small satellite operators have been booking Electron rides, and Rocket Lab says it already has a nearly full manifest for this year and next.

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