Small rock­ets her­ald a new ‘space race’

Viet Nam News - - INSIGHT - Ivan Couronne

NEW YORK — In midNovem­ber, a com­pany called Rocket Lab will try to send six small satel­lites into or­bit around Earth – a fairly ba­nal un­der­tak­ing, save for the size of the launch rocket.

It is only 17 me­ters tall and 1.2 me­ters in di­am­e­ter.

And if all goes well, the US com­pany will send up more than one of its Elec­tron rock­ets ev­ery month in 2019.

Rocket Lab, which was cre­ated in 2006, com­pleted a suc­cess­ful test flight in Jan­uary and is ex­pected this month to be the first of a new gen­er­a­tion of com­pa­nies to de­clare it­self op­er­a­tional in the so-called “small launch in­dus­try.”

The launch win­dow opens on Novem­ber 11. Bar­ring a mishap, or an­other de­lay af­ter a month­s­long tech­ni­cal set­back, the rocket will blast off from the world’s first pri­vate or­bital launch range in Mahia, New Zealand.

Like Rocket Lab, dozens of start-up com­pa­nies are de­vel­op­ing rock­ets adapted to send small, mi­cro or nanosatel­lites – which weigh any­thing from a few ki­los to a few hun­dred ki­los – into space.

It’s a whole new chap­ter for the “New Space Race,” the lat­est in­dus­try rev­o­lu­tion be­gun about a decade ago and based on pri­vate, not pub­lic, in­no­va­tion – es­pe­cially in the United States.

Rocket Lab’s cre­ation has a black car­bon com­pos­ite fuse­lage with “Elec­tron” em­bla­zoned on the side in white let­ter­ing.

Its en­gine is pro­duced by a 3D printer in Cal­i­for­nia, a move that helped cut costs, the com­pany’s chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer Adam Spice said.

Launch­ing from New Zealand also has its ad­van­tages over tra­di­tional sites in Florida or Cal­i­for­nia: there are not nearly as many planes in the air.

“If you’ve got no air traf­fic to clear, we have the abil­ity to launch more fre­quently than any other place in the planet,” Spice noted.

The com­pany has six Elec­tron rock­ets in pro­duc­tion, and is es­ti­mat­ing it will carry out 16 launches next year.

A lot more flex­i­bil­ity

Rocket Lab’s plans are not go­ing to be cheap – rel­a­tively, its rocket is ex­pen­sive on a per-kilo ba­sis.

But it’s hold­ing out the prospect of fre­quent launches that would help re­solve the cur­rent back­log.

Nowa­days, com­pa­nies that want to put a small satel­lite into space are only of­fered spare space in a rocket launched by SpaceX or Ari­anes­pace, which are pri­mar­ily re­served for big­ger, costlier satel­lites.

The two-stage Fal­con 9 op­er­ated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX is 70 me­tres tall (more than four times big­ger than the Elec­tron) and can carry 23 tons of cargo into space (as op­posed to a max­i­mum of 250 ki­los for the Elec­tron).

But small rock­ets should help re­duce launch wait times from 1824 months or more, at the big­ger com­pa­nies, to a mere six months.

Cus­tomers are ready to pay for the speedy ser­vice: the go­ing rate at Rocket Lab is about $40,000 a kilo, as com­pared with $3,000 a kilo at SpaceX.

“What you have with the small launch ve­hi­cles is you get a lot more flex­i­bil­ity,” said Rob Coney­beer, an in­vestor in Vec­tor, one of Rocket Lab’s com­peti­tors.

Other com­pa­nies in the small rocket sec­tor in­clude Vir­gin Or­bit, Stra­to­launch, and Aus­trali­abased Gil­mour.

Chad An­der­son, the CEO of the Space An­gels in­vest­ment net­work, says there are about 180 com­pa­nies work­ing on small rock­ets.

But, he said, there are only about a dozen world­wide that ac­tu­ally have hard­ware. And even fewer have the nec­es­sary fund­ing.

“Maybe there’s like half a dozen that are re­ally cred­i­ble at this mo­ment,” the in­vestor said.

Nu­mer­ous ap­pli­ca­tions

The suc­cess of those half-dozen firms will help de­fine how fast the New Space Race shakes out.

In 2009, when SpaceX sent its first satel­lite into or­bit, there were about a dozen pri­vate space com­pa­nies, ac­cord­ing to An­der­son.

To­day, there are more than 375 such firms, which have raised more than $16 bil­lion in fund­ing.

The ap­pli­ca­tions for the tech­nol­ogy are nu­mer­ous – first of all, in telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, and then in Earth ob­ser­va­tion, ac­cord­ing to par­tic­i­pants in the se­cond Space Sum­mit or­ga­nized by The Econ­o­mist in New York on Thurs­day.

Ob­tain­ing more pre­cise im­ages of Earth, more fre­quently, would be some­thing com­pa­nies in mul­ti­ple sec­tors would want, from de­fense to farm­ing, in­sur­ance and fi­nance.

Such satel­lites could help fa­cil­i­tate ev­ery­thing from re­pair­ing gas pipe­lines to as­sess­ing flood dam­age, for ex­am­ple.

SpaceKnow is al­ready us­ing them to count parked cars at Dis­ney World in Florida or the num­ber of swim­ming pools in Brazil, as well as to ob­serve ac­tiv­ity at 6,000 fac­to­ries in China.

Such data is scooped up by clients on Wall Street, who use it as a new kind of eco­nomic in­di­ca­tor.

For all of these ser­vices to be ac­com­mo­dated, more satel­lites need to be in or­bit, and thus more rock­ets need to be launched. Nearly a decade af­ter the cre­ation of SpaceX, the path to space is get­ting wider. — AFP

Rocket Lab’s Elec­tron rocket — seen on the launch pad in Mahia, New Zealand in June 2018 — is ex­pected to take flight some­time in Novem­ber. — AFP/VNA Photo

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