Rocket Lab

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Rocket Lab
IndustryLaunch service provider
FoundedJune 2006; 13 years ago (2006-06) in Auckland, New Zealand[1]
FounderPeter Beck[1]
Huntington Beach, California
Key people
ProductsElectron rocket
Rutherford rocket engine
Curie rocket engine
Photon satellite bus
Number of employees
~500[3] (June 2019)

Rocket Lab[4] is a private American aerospace manufacturer and smallsat launch service provider with a wholly owned New Zealand subsidiary.[5][6][7][8] It developed a sub-orbital sounding rocket named Ātea and currently operates a lightweight orbital rocket known as Electron, which provides dedicated launches for smallsats and CubeSats. The company was founded in New Zealand in 2006 by Peter Beck[9] and established headquarters in California in the United States in 2013.[1][10]

The Electron test program began in May 2017,[11][12] with commercial flights announced by the company to occur at a price listed in early 2018 as US$5.7 million.[13] Launching from Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, the rocket's test flights took place on 25 May 2017 and 21 January 2018,[14][15] while its first commercial flight took place on 11 November 2018.[16] On 16 December 2018, Rocket Lab launched their first mission for NASA's ELaNa program. The company plans to make its first launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia in 2020.[17]


Rocket Lab was founded in June 2006 by New Zealander Peter Beck, the company's CEO and CTO.[1] Internet entrepreneur and fellow New Zealander Mark Rocket was the seed investor and co-director from 2007 to 2011.[18] Rocket Lab claimed it became the first private company in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space after launching its Ātea-1 sounding rocket in November 2009.[8] The payload was not recovered, but this was not deemed necessary. As an instrumentation dart, the payload was ballistic; its trajectory depended only on the boost phase of flight.[citation needed] The launch took place off the coast of New Zealand, from the private island (the Great Mercury Island) of Michael Fay, a New Zealand banker and investor.[19]

Another early investor into Rocket Labs was Stephen Tindall, a New Zealand entrepreneur and start-up-business-investor[19].

In December 2010, Rocket Lab was awarded a U.S. government contract from the Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS) to study a low cost space launcher to place CubeSats into orbit.[20][21][22][23] This agreement with NASA enables the company to use NASA resources such as personnel, facilities, and equipment for commercial launch efforts.[24][25]

Around 2013 the company moved its registration from New Zealand to USA, and opened headquarters in Huntington Beach, California. The move coincided with company receiving funding from American sources, and was in part due to increased USA government customership in the company.[26]

Funding was obtained from Khosla Ventures in 2013,[27] and Callaghan Innovation (a Crown entity of New Zealand) and Bessemer Venture Partners in 2014.[28][29] Lockheed Martin became a strategic investor in 2015,[30] and Rocket Lab announced in March 2017 that it had raised an additional US$75 million in a Series D equity round led by Data Collective with participation by Promus Ventures and several previous investors.[31] In November 2018, the company reported raising a US$140-million series E round led by Future Fund.[32]

In May 2017, the investments of the Crown agency Callaghan Innovation into Rocket Lab over the years was reported to total 15 million New Zealand dollars.[26]

The first NASA mission, launched in 2018, was valued[to whom?] at US$7.95 million (with launch services etc. included).[26]

Rocket Lab began to develop reusable first stage technology in 2018, after previously stating publically that they had no intention of attempting to recover and then reuse their small low-cost launch vehicles. They disclosed the effort to study the potential recovery of an Electron first stage in August 2019, eventually aiming to use a parachute and mid-air retrieval, stating that they hope to make a stage recovery attempt before mid-2020.[33] In December 2019, they flight tested the reentry technology—a Rocket Lab proprietary aerothermal decelerator—on Electron flight number 10, and were able to decelerate the rocket and successfully bring it through the space-to-dense-atmosphere transition. They did not attempt to recover the rocket on this first test; but they plan to add guided parachutes to future test flights, eventually recovering the booster by snagging the parachute-descending rocket with a helicopter in the lower atmosphere.[34]

Launch vehicles[edit]


The first launch of the Ātea (Māori for 'space') suborbital sounding rocket occurred in late 2009.[35] The 6-metre (20 ft) long rocket weighing 60 kilograms (130 lb) was designed to carry a 2 kg (4.4 lb) payload to an altitude of 120 kilometres (75 mi).[36] It was intended to carry scientific payloads or possibly personal items.[37][38][39]

Ātea-1, named Manu Karere or Bird Messenger by the local Māori iwi,[40] was successfully launched from Great Mercury Island near the Coromandel Peninsula on 30 November 2009 at 2:23 pm (01:23 UTC) after fueling problems delayed the scheduled 7:10 am liftoff.[41][42] The rocket was tracked by GPS uplink to the Inmarsat-B satellite constellation; it splashed down approximately 50 km (31 mi) downrange.[42][43]

The payload had no telemetry downlink, but had instrumentation including the launch vehicle's uplink to Inmarsat. Payload was not required to be recovered, being only a dart, and the company advised that should it be encountered by vessels at sea, the payload should not be handled as it was "potentially hazardous" and contained delicate instruments. However, performance characteristics were completely determined by the boost stage, which did have downlink telemetry and was recovered. A second launch of Ātea-1 was not attempted.[citation needed]


Electron is a two-stage launch vehicle which uses Rocket Lab's Rutherford liquid engines on both stages. The vehicle is capable of delivering payloads of 150 kg to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit,[44] the target range for the growing small satellite market. The projected cost is less than US$5 million per launch.[45]

The Rutherford engine uses pumps that are uniquely powered by battery-powered electric motors rather than a gas generator, expander, or preburner.[46] The engine is also fabricated largely by 3D printing, via electron beam melting,[47] whereby layers of metal powder are melted in a high vacuum by an electron beam rather than a laser.

By March 2016, the 22 kN (5,000 lbf) second-stage Rutherford engine had completed firing tests.[48] The first test flight took place on 25 May 2017 at 04:20 UTC from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand's North Island.[14] After reaching an altitude of about 224 km (140 mi), the rocket was performing nominally but telemetry was lost so the decision to destroy it was made by range safety.[49][50][51]

On 21 January 2018 at 01:43 UTC, their second rocket on a flight named "Still Testing" launched, reached orbit and deployed three CubeSats for customers Planet Labs and Spire Global.[52] The rocket also carried an additional satellite payload called Humanity Star, a 1-meter-wide (3 ft) carbon fiber geodesic sphere made up of 65 panels that reflect the Sun's light.[53] Humanity Star re-entered Earth's atmosphere and burned up in March 2018.[54] On 11 November 2018, the first commercial launch (third launch in total) of Electron occurred from Mahia Peninsula carrying satellites for Spire Global, GeoOptics, a CubeSat built by high school students, and a prototype of a dragsail.[16]

Photon satellite bus[edit]

Based on Rocket Lab's Electron kick stage, Photon is a satellite bus.[55] It uses the Curie engine and communicates on S band. Depending on the orbital inclination (37° to Sun-synchronous orbit) it is expected to have a maximum payload capacity of 170 kg (370 lb).[56] In October, 2019 Rocket Lab announced plans to use Photon to launch small payloads into lunar orbit as soon as fourth quarter 2020.[57]



In October 2018, Rocket Lab revealed their new manufacturing facility in Auckland, New Zealand.[58] It is intended for the production of propellant tanks and stage builds, and is in charge of the overall integration of launch vehicles for Launch Complex 1.[59]

The company's headquarters in Huntington Beach, California, produce the Rutherford engines and avionics.[2][59]

Launch Complex 1[edit]

Launch Complex 1 under construction in 2016

After encountering difficulty in obtaining resource consent for the Kaitorete Spit launch site,[60] Rocket Lab announced in November 2015 that its primary launch site would be on the Mahia Peninsula, east of Wairoa in the North Island, New Zealand.[61] The site is licensed to launch rockets every 72 hours for 30 years.[62] The Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) was officially opened on 26 September 2016 (UTC; 27 September NZDT).[63]

Launch Complex 2[edit]

In October 2018, after several months of search, the company announced their selection of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility as their second launch site. The site was chosen for a number of factors: the speed and ease in which the new pad could be built due to infrastructure readiness, the low number of launches from other companies, and the location's ability to supplement orbital inclinations provided by LC-1. It is expected to be capable of monthly launches serving US government and commercial missions.[59]

The Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) is located within the fence line of MARS Launch Pad 0A.[64]

In December 2019, construction of the launch pad was completed and Rocket Lab inaugurated the LC-2. First flight of Electron from LC-2 is expected in Q2 2020.[65]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Rocket Lab Celebrates Rich Ten-Year History". Rocket Lab. 2016. Retrieved 22 May 2017.
  2. ^ a b Masunaga, Samantha (21 March 2017). "Rocket Lab moves headquarters from Los Angeles to Huntington Beach". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 29 June 2019.
  3. ^ Pullar-Strecker, Tom (9 June 2019). "Rocket Lab keeps tabs on 117 rivals, but that's not what's keeping it busy". Retrieved 29 June 2019.
  4. ^ Note: As of 2018, the company is structured as follows. The "ultimate holding company" is Rocket Lab USA Inc. registered in the United States. The subsidiary is Rocked Lab Limited, a NZ Limited Company.
  5. ^ "FAQ". Rocket Lab. Retrieved 30 March 2019. Where is Rocket Lab based? [-] Rocket Lab is an American company with headquarters in Los Angeles and a wholly owned New Zealand subsidiary.
  6. ^ Wattles, Jackie (11 November 2018). "Startup Rocket Lab puts 6 small satellites into orbit". CNN. Retrieved 30 March 2019.
  7. ^ Berger, Eric (17 October 2018). "Rocket Lab Gets Second Launch Site Gears Up for Rapid Flight Cadence". Ars Technica. Retrieved 30 March 2019.
  8. ^ a b Botsford End, Rae (2 May 2015). "Rocket Lab: the Electron, the Rutherford, and why Peter Beck started it in the first place". Spaceflight Insider. Retrieved 30 March 2019.
  9. ^ Walsh, Frances (1 April 2008). "Rocket Lab's Peter Beck and Mark Rocket on their space plans". Metro. Retrieved 29 June 2019.
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  13. ^ Gugliotta, Guy (April 2018). "Small Rockets Aim for a Big Market". Air & Space Magazine. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  14. ^ a b Clark, Stephen (25 May 2017). "Maiden flight of Rocket Lab's small satellite launcher reaches space". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  15. ^ Clark, Stephen (21 January 2018). "Rocket Lab delivers nanosatellites to orbit on first successful test launch". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  16. ^ a b Chang, Kenneth (11 November 2018). "Rocket Lab's Modest Launch Is Giant Leap for Small Rocket Business". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  17. ^ Wall, Mike (1 October 2019). "Rocket Lab Gearing Up for 1st Launches from US Soil in Early 2020". Retrieved 7 December 2019.
  18. ^ "Home". Mark Rocket.
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  26. ^ a b c
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  54. ^ Kramer, Miriam (22 March 2018). "The Humanity Star satellite has fallen back to Earth after its short mission in space". Mashable. Retrieved 22 November 2018.
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  56. ^ "Photon". Rocket Lab. Retrieved 12 May 2019.
  57. ^ Berger, Eric (21 October 2019). "Rocket Lab—yep, Rocket Lab—has a plan to deliver satellites to the Moon". Ars Technica. Retrieved 30 October 2019.
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  59. ^ a b c Gebhardt, Chris (17 October 2018). "Rocket Lab selects Wallops as first U.S. launch site, readies Electron for November launch". Retrieved 23 October 2018.
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External links[edit]