First rocket ready to rumble

Rocket Lab’s first Electron vehicle has arrived at its launch site south of Gisborne in what the New Zealand company says is an important milestone for the space industry.

The historic test launch will take place in ”the coming months”, dependent on equipment testing and weather on the Mahia Peninsula.

Pre-flight checks would now start on the 17m tall rocket – with a call sign chosen by staff: ”It’s a Test.”

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‘Chunk of capital’ puts Rocket Lab on launch countdown

Congratulations to the team at Rocket Lab on raising their latest round of funding. Andrew spoke compellingly at the Angel Summit last year about the ability to build global companies from NZ and this is another proof point.

Rocket Lab has attracted new financial backing from one of the United States’ oldest venture capital firms and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to put it on course to launch its latest vehicle into orbit this year.

The Auckland-based company aims to send satellites into space for a fraction of the price of bigger existing ventures. Founder and sole director Peter Beck said the latest financing round would allow the company to test launch its Electron rocket this year and a commercial launch next year. Existing backers have also committed further towards the firm.

“The size of the investment is commercially sensitive [but] you can see by the size of these projects these are not trivial amounts of money. This is a significant chunk of capital that will hopefully bring us into commercial operations in 2016.”

The company said it would soon announce its New Zealand launch site.
The 18m tall carbon composite Electron could be launched from a site the size of a rugby field. The site required a northeasterly aspect and had to be clear of populated areas.

The firm aims to transport small satellites into space for less than $6 million, compared with more than $160 million for an average launch overseas using rockets 60m tall.

The lead-time for businesses to launch a satellite would be reduced from years to weeks.

Beck said Lockheed Martin has had a relationship with his firm for the past five years but the strategic equity funding was the first financial investment it had made.

While the Maryland-headquartered firm is among America’s military giants, Electron rockets had no weapons capability because they couldn’t carry sufficient mass and flew on the wrong trajectory.

Lockheed has been involved in the US space programme since its inception and launched satellites using Atlas rockets. Last year it earned more than $10 billion from the services and “strategic missiles lines of business”.

Venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners is more than a century old and has provided seed funding for companies ranging from International Paper, retailer Staples to high-tech firms Skype, and LinkedIn.

David Cowan, a BVP partner, has joined Rocket Lab’s board as part of BVP’s funding.

The Electron rocket would revolutionise aerospace, Cowan said.

Existing backers, Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures and Sir Stephen Tindall’s K1W1 investment fund participated fully in the latest funding round, Beck said.

The eight-year-old company has developed and launched a number of rockets and received up to $25 million of government funding over five years.

He said Rocket Lab was able to raise funds from venture capital firms very quickly which was important as there was growing competition in the small rocket market.

“The market opportunity for small satellites is massive at the moment and we see a number of competitors in the US. Their biggest issue is trying to get funding.”

Lockheed Martin chief scientist Ned Allen said his company invested in technology to help keep up with innovation across the industry.

“Rocket Lab’s work could have application in a number of aerospace domains, and we look forward to working with them to complement our overall efforts in small lift capabilities and hypersonic flight technologies.”

Rocket Lab expects to unveil further details about the Electron at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs next month.

First published on 3rd March 2015

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