“5, 4, 3, 2” – “Ignition”
In the light winds on the Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand last Sunday afternoon, a slightly nervous male voice could be heard over the airwaves counting down to the launch of RocketLab’s second Electron rocket into orbit. News of the launch blew up globally, RocketLab becoming the first start-up company to reach orbit and the first ever to get there on only the second try. Their success was boosted as they deployed two customer’s satellites.
If the latest news you heard about space was the Mars rover, then you may be shocked to hear that Space is being rapidly commercialised by companies such as RocketLab. Though NASA is still the world’s most well-known space agency, eyes are now on the private sector to open up the real-estate’ of our solar system.
Despite its rapid growth, the private sector is known for entertaining the dreams of bored billionaires, with Musk, Branson, and Bigelow all putting their personal fortunes into the race. Musk’s company SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) is the forerunner in this new age space race. As he launches his way into being everyone’s favourite philanthropist, Musk dreams of a multi-planetary civilisation in which resources are used sustainably and he doesn’t mind if he makes a couple billion along the way.
SpaceX made headlines in 2015 when they became the first company to land an orbital-strength rocket, and again in 2017 as the first to reuse one. They also were the first major company to get into orbit, though not without NASA’s help. A plan by NASA to move to the private sector for resupply contracts was almost scrapped before Musk came in and proved he could do it for a fraction of the cost (sound familiar, Australia?). SpaceX is now about to launch their latest rocket named the Falcon Heavy.
Because SpaceX’s ultimate goal is to create a settlement on Mars, the Falcon Heavy is another step to their ultimate machine goal, the Mars Vehicle. This project faces more problems than just its less-than-creative name; the estimated cost to build one is $10 billion and no matter how good your reuse strategies are, you can never guarantee that you’ll get it back.
But even if he can front the $10 billion, Musk still faces the problem that his dreams of technology outpace the public. No matter how many times he succeeds, we forget how crazy it seemed because he has already set himself another seemingly ridiculous goal, like cutting the travel time to Mars from the calculated 60 days, to 30 days. This is where it gets interesting, while Musk is imagining parking his Tesla on Mars, there are others using similar technology to simply launch satellites, a completely different niche.
This is where the term ‘space race’ becomes inaccurate. In a race, everyone has the same destination, what we are seeing here is a colonisation of a new market. Virgin Galactic is directed towards a space tourist market, charging each passenger a mere $200,000 for a sub-orbital jaunt. RocketLab, takes a slightly different approach to both Space X and Virgin Galactic. Instead of spending billions trying to land and reuse rockets, they have created a cheap, small design that can be manufactured quickly.
Though USA owned, the heart and CEO (Peter Beck) of the company is Kiwi, and like all Kiwis, they’re proud of their inventions. Sporting the magnificent Silver Fern, their rocket, the Electron, shows off some of their best work. According to Dr Fred Watson of the Space Nuts podcast, their best innovations include the creation of an entirely carbon composite body which is lighter and can be manufactured more easily than the common aluminium, their largely 3D printed engines, and their move to electric fuel pumps. Though they may not be doing the full rounds of completely reusing rockets, they are still concerned with sustainability. Instead of wasting and dumping lower pressure fuel in the pre-burner of the engine, RocketLab has created an electric fuel pump, that uses reusable batteries.
Though nothing to sniff at, the $4.9 million it costs them to launch a rocket is considerably cheaper – they claim 95% – than their competitors, making their stability as a business feasible. Not only do they have a cheap launch cost, they are largely a rideshare service, where your satellite can book a pre-scheduled launch with other company’s satellites and CubeSats. Though if you don’t want the integration, and can front the (unknown) extra cost, you can contact the company for your own launch and mission leader.
RocketLab claims that the space market will create the possibility of worldwide internet access, faster storm warnings, better agriculture practises, greater opportunities for higher education, and the list goes on. But who is going to make this happen?
If you, like I was, are wondering who in the solar system they are marketing this to, you may be surprised to hear that they have already launched two satellites. The satellites were paid for by the tech companies Planet and Spire, and the company also has the interest of others including Moon Express and NASA. Though obviously having its own rockets, NASA has put an order in for 18 CubeSats (very small satellites with low power) to be launched, proving that the private sector is in fact, cheaper.
The space market is becoming more complex each day, with innovations in technology pushing forward the possibilities of new markets, developments, and customers. No longer just a billionaires game, the commercial space industry is taking off.