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Electron launch
An Electron rocket lifts off from Rocket Lab’s launch site in New Zealand on January 21 (January 20 US time), successfully placing three cubesats into orbit. (credit: Rocket Lab)

Small rockets are finally taking off, but will the market follow?

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At one point during the countdown Saturday afternoon in New Zealand for Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, which had already been delayed that day because of “rogue vessels” entering restricted waters offshore, a controller could be heard on the communications loop, broadcast on the launch webcast, asking if the launch director wanted “hold points” included in the countdown as they geared up for another attempt. The director didn’t understand the request.

The controller asked again, and once again the director said he didn’t understand. “Do you want any hold points?” the controller asked for a third time. “As in, do you want to hold at T-18 or 20 [minutes]?”

The launch director this time offered an immediate, deadpan response. “I never want to hold again.”

The launch director offered an immediate, deadpan response. “I never want to hold again.”

The frustration was understandable. Rocket Lab had tried to launch the Electron last month, with four hours set aside each day for ten days to fly the rocket. That window closed in mid-December, though, after weather postponed several attempts and technical glitches stopped others, including one launch attempt halted just two seconds before liftoff when computers detected liquid oxygen temperatures in one of the nine first-stage engines that were above limits.

At the end of the ten days, Rocket Lab decided to stand down after the new year before trying again. But this first attempt in the new year was also ill-fated: in addition to a delay caused by the intruding ships, an avionics problem—found minutes after the launch director made his plea for no more holds—triggered another hold. With upper-level winds increasing and time running out in the four-hour window, Rocket Lab soon decided to scrub the launch for the day.

The next day, though, the launch director finally got his wish. There were no rogue boats in restricted waters offshore, no technical issues with the rocket, and winds remained within limits. So, at 2:43 pm Sunday afternoon (8:43 pm EST Saturday night), the Electron lifted off from Rocket Lab’s pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula.

The first time Electron launched, last May, the flight was aborted four minutes after liftoff when a telemetry problem triggered range safety systems, according to an investigation Rocket Lab disclosed nearly three months later, adding that the vehicle itself was performing as expected. That first launch was not publicly webcast, but this one was, allowing people to more immediately judge its success or failure.

That meant an audience of thousands could watch as the Electron streaked towards orbit, its onboard cameras—de rigeur for launch vehicles these days—captured the shutdown and separation of the first stage, followed shortly thereafter by the release of the payload fairing. The footage continued until the second stage engine shut down a little more than eight minutes after launch, shortly after a controller said “vehicle is orbital.”

While a test flight (the mission’s official name was “Still Testing,” after the inaugural launch was called “It’s a Test”), the rocket carried a payload of three cubesats. Two were built by Spire, which operates a fleet of such satellites to collect weather and ship-tracking data, while the third was from Planet, which has a constellation of Dove cubesats to collect imagery of the Earth. All three were released into elliptical orbits of 300 by 500 kilometers. Both companies later confirmed their satellites were in orbit and functioning.

Peter Beck, the founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, was understandably excited that the Electron rocket was a success. “It feels absolutely fantastic,” he said in a phone interview a little more than an hour after the launch.

Beck said everything went well from an initial review of the data from the launch, adding that the cubesat payloads were released into orbits “well inside our commercial accuracy” in terms of both altitude and orbital inclination. However, he suggested the company would take at least the next several weeks to examine the telemetry in greater detail.

“We’ll be as diligent as we always are, and we’ll spend our time having a good look at that data,” he said. “We’ll take our time to review the data.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time preparing for when we feel like the vehicle is solid,” Beck said. “Now, it’s just a matter of pushing them through.”

Beck declined to commit to a launch date for the next mission other than to say that the rocket should be rolled out to the pad “in the coming months.” While Rocket Lab had originally planned to perform three test flights before beginning commercial missions, Beck previously said the company would skip that third test flight if this was a success. Beck, in the post-launch interview, declined to name who would be the customer for the next launch if it is indeed a commercial mission.

Beck said that Rocket Lab should be ready, assuming this launch did go as planned, to accelerate into commercial operations. He didn’t specify the number of launches the company has planned for 2018, but said the goal is to reach a rate of one launch a month by the end of the year.

“Since the last flight we’ve spent a lot on preparing the business to scale,” he said, including establishing a factory in Southern California to produce Rutherford engines at a rate of one flight set—nine first stage engines and one second stage engine—per month. “We’ve spent a lot of time preparing for when we feel like the vehicle is solid,” he said. “Now, it’s just a matter of pushing them through.”

After the launch, Rocket Lab commemorated that now-famous “I never want to hold again” line in modern fashion: on a t-shirt.

The growing competition

Rocket Lab may be the first of a new generation of commercially-developed small launch vehicles to make it to orbit, but it has plenty of competition. Among the biggest, and closest, competitors is Virgin Orbit, whose LauncherOne air-launch system was spun off from Virgin Galactic last year. Work continues on the rocket—the company posted videos last week of both a payload fairing separation test and a two-minute static fire of the NewtonThree engine used in its first stage—while the modified Boeing 747 aircraft that will carry the rocket flies in the skies above Mojave, California.

“We’ve actually performed a number of qual tests over just the last few weeks,” said Dan Hart, president and CEO of Virgin Orbit, during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week. “The team is performing just really well. They’re an agile team. So we’ve got a little bit of work to do, and we’re looking forward to flight a little later this year.”

The first, test launch of LauncherOne is planned for the middle of this year, he said, with commercial launches to begin later this year. “Our manifest for 2018 is full. For 2019, where we want to launch 12 times, it’s more than halfway full. And for 2020, where we want to double that cadence, we’re also about halfway full,” he said.

Virgin Orbit took a step to fill that manifest last week. The company announced a contract with GomSpace, a Danish smallsat developer, for a LauncherOne mission in early 2019. GomSpace plans to use the launch to help deploy a constellation of ship-tracking satellites for its subsidiary, Aerial & Maritime Ltd.

“We’re seeing a lot of hunger” for small launch vehicles for systems like the GomSpace one, Hart said on the panel. He also noted competing launch companies, including Rocket Lab. “Our philosophy is that we wish them well, because this is a new part of the market that needs to have more than one player in it.”

But just how many players does the market need? The industry is about to find out as a wave of small launchers under development around the world prepares to enter service.

“Our philosophy is that we wish them well,” Virgin Orbit’s Hart said of the competition, “because this is a new part of the market that needs to have more than one player in it.”

At a panel discussion earlier this month during the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington—the only space session in a meeting dominated by other modes of transportation—Carlos Niederstrasser of Orbital ATK provided an update on his tracking of the number of small launch vehicles. It was a project that he and colleague Warren Frick started a few years ago to present at the annual Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University. Given the high level of interest in that survey, they have continued to update it.

To be considered, vehicles have to be under active development in the last few years or be operational, and be capable of placing no more than 1,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. The vehicles also have to be available to commercial customers or the US government, ruling out some launch vehicles/missiles in places like Iran and North Korea.

By those metrics, Niederstrasser said five small launch vehicles are operational today: Orbital ATK’s own Pegasus and Minotaur I rockets, and three Chinese vehicles: Kaitouzhe-2, Kuaizhou-1A, and Long March 11. However, by his count, there are 35 small launch vehicles in active development worldwide, a number that has soared since starting the list a few years ago. “There was a period of time last year where I was finding a new vehicle almost every week,” he said.

Of those 35, just over half, or 18, are US vehicles. Most of the rest come from three other countries: six from China, four from the UK, and three from Spain. Niederstrasser said he keeps a “watch list” of an additional 30 vehicles about which there’s not enough information publicly available to determine yet if they are real projects.

Some industry observers believe that surge in interest is linked to the growing development of smallsats that ultimately will desire dedicated launches. “There’s a demand in the development of small satellites,” said Tim Chen of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which is aiding technology development for some small launch vehicles, in the same panel discussion. “The demand for small satellites has just skyrocketed, no pun intended.”

Most smallsats today launch as secondary payloads on larger launches: 30 of them, for example, launched earlier this month as secondaries on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Small launcher proponents believe that smallsat developers would prefer dedicated launches. “If you can have a dedicated launch vehicle that can take you where you want to go, when you want to go, at a price that you can afford in your business plan, you can have a certainty of when you can become operational and start booking revenue,” Chen said.

“There will be failures, business as well as technical, but that’s just part of the process,” said Slazer.

The key, though, is that dedicated launches be available at that “price that you can afford.” Dedicated launches are likely to remain far more expensive than secondary payloads for the foreseeable future. Many in the industry remain skeptical that there will be a large demand for the flexibility, in terms of schedule and orbit, that dedicated launches can provide over the cost savings of secondary payloads.

That suggests that, at some point, there will be a shakeout, as vehicles that don’t run into technical or funding problems during their development struggle to win customers in what may be a very competitive market. That may not be surprising, even to the investors who are backing many of these new launch ventures.

“I think the venture capital community is used to having a high attrition rate,” said Frank Slazer, vice president of space systems for the Aerospace Industries Association, later in the panel discussion. Those investors, he said, have seen that process play out in other industries, such as with Internet and biotech startups. “There will be failures, business as well as technical, but that’s just part of the process.”

Niederstrasser said he thinks a lot of the interest in small launchers is driven by what he termed “launch fever” as entrepreneurs seek to follow in the footsteps of SpaceX, without competing directly against it. As SpaceX and other established launch providers move towards larger vehicles, those entrepreneurs think they can find success with smaller vehicles, despite the mixed track record of some of those established companies with small launch vehicles. “There’s a perceived gap that all these guys are trying to fill,” he said.

He noted that, since he started tracking small launch vehicles, several have already gone away either because of company bankruptcies or government program cancellations. “There are a lot of new programs emerging, but we’re starting to see some that are disappearing as time goes on,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how they all pan out.”