Will the smallsat community get charged up by Electron?

Electron rocket event

Attendees of a July 29 event unveiling the Electron rocket look at a model of it on display. (credit: Rocket Lab Ltd.)

It seems like hardly a week goes by this summer without another smallsat launch venture announcing their plans. That’s an exaggeration, but only a mild one. In early July, Firefly Space Systems announced Firefly Alpha, a vehicle designed to place up to 400 kilograms into low Earth orbit (LEO) for $8–9 million. At the NewSpace 2014 conference last week, CubeCab, a company that plans to develop an air-launch system for individual CubeSats, won the $20,000 first prize in the Lightning Pitch competition.

Now a company based in both New Zealand and the United Stated is joining the fray. Rocket Lab Ltd. announced plans Tuesday for Electron, a smallsat launcher designed to place 110 kilograms into a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit for $4.9 million.

“The innovation behind Electron will release the limitations on launching small satellites,” said Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab Ltd., in the announcement about the company. “Our vision at Rocket Lab is to make space commercially viable and more accessible than ever, doing what the Ford Model T did for consumer automobiles.”

Rocket Lab appears to be taking a page from SpaceX in its vehicle design. Electron uses a design like the Falcon 9, using nine “Rutherford” engines in its first stage and a single engine of the same design (with what appears to be a different nozzle to work better in vacuum) in the second stage. (Electron also has a solid-propellant third stage.) Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engine uses liquid oxygen and kerosene, producing about 13,300 newtons (3,000 pounds-force) of thrust.

However, the company’s announcement generates many questions as well. The company has an unusual structure, calling itself “an American company with a subsidiary and head office in Auckland, New Zealand.” While the announcement is datelined in Los Angeles, the unveiling event took place in New Zealand, heavily covered by the local press. The company doesn’t explain this arrangement, which may have some contractual benefits (such as being able to compete for US government business) but likely also has export control and other challenges as well.

Rocket Lab says its principal funder is Khosla Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital (VC) firm run by billionaire Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems. The size of the investment, announced last October, isn’t disclosed. Rocket Lab does not appear on the portfolio page of Khosla Venvtures’ website, and the fund did not respond to a email inquiry earlier this week regarding its investment in Rocket Lab. Khosla himself, though, is quoted in the release, saying that Rocket Labs’s “technical innovations will truly transform the space industry.”

Khosla, though, is not the only source of funding for the company. The company announced earlier this year it won a Callaghan Innovation Research and Development Growth Grant form the New Zealand government. The size of that grant isn’t disclosed, although one local media report indicated it was valued at NZ$25 million (US$21.3 million). That report also said the company has received investment from another individual, Sir Stephen Tindall.

Those media reports also indicated that Rocket Lab plans to launch the first Electron later this year from a private launch facility somewhere in New Zealand. Rocket Lab has “commitments for its first 30 launches,” according to the announcement, but did not disclose those customers, and whether those “commitments” are signed contracts or less binding letters of intent. (Rocket Lab did not respond to questions on these and other issues submitted via email on Tuesday morning.)

Ultimately, Rocket Lab and other ventures in this market may face the same challenge, regardless of their different technical approaches: is there sufficient demand from the smallsat industry for dedicated launches at these prices? SpaceX withdrew the Falcon 1 from the market because of, according to it, a lack of demand, even though that vehicle had similar capabilities and prices as some of these new ones. Certainly interest in smallsats has grown considerably in recent years, but that demand is also being fulfilled, for the moment, primarily by less expensive secondary launch opportunities.

7 comments to Will the smallsat community get charged up by Electron?

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>