NASA is all set to launch the next revolution in space something that was long its special preserve. The launch will take place from a paddock in New Zealand's remote South Island.
The rocket-launch range is not just New Zealand's first of any kind, but also the world's first private launch range. Designed by "Rocket Lab", which is one of a growing number of businesses targeting to reduce the cost of space travel, the rocket will be powered by a 3D-printed engine â€” another first.
The 16-metre carbon-cased rocket, being assembled in a small hangar near Auckland Airport, will weight 1,190 kilograms. With fuel and payload, the rocket will be about one-third the weight of SpaceX's Falcon 1 â€” the first privately-developed launch vehicle to go into orbit in 2008.
"One advantage of New Zealand being this little island nation in the middle of nowhere is that's the perfect place to launch a rocket," said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab's CEO.
Ships and planes need re-routing every time a rocket is launched, which limits opportunities in crowded US skies. However, New Zealand, with 4 million people, has only Antarctica to its south.
Rocket Lab, part-funded by Lockheed Martin Corp, is aiming for up to one launch a week from around 2018, costing under $5 million each. The cost will be one-10th of typical launch prices now, and vastly increase business access to space.
Even NASA, struggling to shift its launch backlog, this month awarded Rocket Lab and rivals Firefly Space Systems and Virgin Galactic contracts totaling $17.1 million to launch tiny satellites into orbit from 2017.
In a bid to win Google's $20 million Lunar X prize for the first company to send a probe that broadcasts images from the moon, Rocket Lab recently signed a deal with Silicon Valley-based Moon Express for sending a rocket to the moon in 2017.
Moon Express has already contracted for five launches with Rocket Lab, and plans to send robotic spacecraft continually to the moon for exploration and commercial development of natural resources such as platinum.
New launch companies will depend on burgeoning small-satellite industries, as players like Google, Virgin and Samsung plan satellite constellations to carry communications infrastructure and gather data from low-earth orbit.
"We're not about building a rocket; we're about enabling the small-satellite revolution," said Rocket Lab's Beck.
One Web, Samsung and SpaceX are planning three separate Internet broadband ventures to provide low-cost Internet from the Himalayas to the Sahara desert. These alone will require 6,000 new satellites in the next four years, Rocket Lab predicts.
The Satellite Industry Association says over 200 satellites were launched in 2014, nearly double the previous year.
"The market can't sustain that many; there's going to be a thinning out of the herd," said Daniel Lim, vice-president of disruptive innovations at space services provider TriSept Corporation. He is one among many that believe there will not be enough demand to support the increasing numbers of launch companies.
Others say launch costs are still too high at around $5 million, when for $40,000 companies can rideshare on a larger rocket to launch a nano-satellite.
But space startups have been proving popular with investors. The largest 100 new space companies received more than $2 billion investment in 2015, around four times more than in 2009, according to data from New Space Global.
That is still dwarfed by NASA's $17.6 billion budget last year, but many say small companies offer options and a risk appetite that government agencies cannot.