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Rocket Lab Primed To Launch New Zealand's First Rocket Into Space

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Private New Zealand aerospace company Rocket Lab completed its final ground-based test today and is now ready to launch New Zealand into the space race with its Atea-1 launch vehicle.

The first high altitude launch of Atea-1 is scheduled for the end of November this year. Once Atea-1 has successfully concluded the development phase it will:

Be the first privately built rocket launched from the Southern Hemisphere to enter space

Launch the Southern Hemisphere's first commercial space programme

Be the first commercial sounding rocket to use hybrid fuel technology

Give the global scientific community the first practical alternative to conventional rockets - at significantly lower cost

Rocket Lab Ltd has today completed the final ground-based test on the company's unique rocket motor in Air New Zealand Gas Turbines' engine test cell. "We're ready to go," says the company's founder and Technical Director Peter Beck.

For the past four months the test programme for the full-scale motor has been carried out in Air New Zealand's Auckland engineering base with the rocket motor secured to a test rig in the airline's jet engine test cell.

"It's an ideal facility, which has allowed us to control a lot of the variables and push ahead fast," says Peter. The first launch is on track to take place from Great Mercury Island. Air New Zealand Gas Turbines manager Richard Ison says Air New Zealand is happy to help the Rocket Lab pioneers.

"We can obviously identify with what they are doing - a small Kiwi company taking on the big established players, and having a fresh approach that simply blows right through the barriers of conventional thinking. And we're very happy to support a genuine environmental breakthrough. The emissions from this engine are non-toxic as opposed to the traditional launch platforms, so it would be great to see Rocket Lab winning a big share of this market."

The Atea-1 is designed specifically for scientific sub-orbital 'sounding' missions. It will travel to an altitude of 120 kilometres - space starts at 100 kilometres - then return to earth in a sub-orbital ballistic curve, to be recovered from a splashdown at sea. It has a payload of just two kilograms, but that is more than enough for modern miniaturised scientific instruments.

The Atea-1 is almost entirely constructed from lightweight carbon fibre composites. Components such as the rocket nozzle and combustion chamber are all manufactured from Rocket Lab- developed composite materials which are a fraction of the weight of traditional metal components. The rocket generates the equivalent of 3200 horsepower from a rocket engine weighing just 13kg.

"The rocket looks quite small for something designed to reach space, but that indicates its efficiency," Peter says. "Small is beautiful in the rocket world."

He explains that research scientists are currently captive to existing suppliers launching ex-military rockets from just a couple of sites. They often have to share payload space to cut costs, and wait years for the privilege.

The ability to launch in the Southern Hemisphere will redress a major imbalance in climate data as most launches to date have been in the Northern Hemisphere. There's currently a big gap in high-altitude or near space data recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.

Rocket Lab has also experienced interest from the commercial sector and is talking to New Zealand companies about launching their products and brands into space for commercial payloads and marketing.

Rocket Lab's key development is its unique fuel formulation that took two years to develop. The fuel is polymer based and suspended in a solid form. It only burns in the presence of an oxidiser - liquid nitrous oxide - which has vastly lowered the environmental impact over conventional solid fuel rockets.

The launch in November will be the culmination of a 15-year quest for Peter Beck and three years' effort from the Rocket Lab team.

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