The US Air Force has entered a contract with Rocket Lab, a private US space company that operates the launch facility on the tip of the Mahia Peninsula on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island.
Rocket Lab conducted its first launch in May 2017 and has made a number of successful launches, most recently for US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
That launch into low-Earth orbit late last month aimed to space-qualify a new type of deployable reflective antenna array for future use on small communications and other satellites. That was the Northrop Grumman R3D2 – Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration.
The company said it was selected for this launch because of its proven track record and ability to support rapid acquisition of small satellite launch capabilities. The DARPA R3D2 mission was launched just over 18 months from conception, a very significant reduction in traditional government acquisition time frames.
Rocket Lab said the nexst mission for its Electron rocket was scheduled for late April and would launch three small technology demonstration satellites for the US Air Force.
The three satellites mass a total 180 kilograms, the heaviest payload so far aboard the company’s Electron rocket.
This forms part of the USAF Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI), mandated by the US Congress to conduct commercial launches at far lower cost than traditional military launches.
Congress allocated US$14.5 million to the program in 2017, with US$5.7 million to Rocket Lab for a dedicated launch.
“RALI demonstrates rapid procurement and the responsiveness of commercial launch, dedicated launch for small payloads to militarily-relevant orbits, on-demand responsiveness and increased operational tempo over legacy national launch architecture,” Lieutenant General David Thompson, Vice Commander of USAF Space Command told the US Senate Armed Services Committee.
Rocket Lab plans to launch around one satellite per month and is turning out an Electron rocket every 30 days from its facilities in California and Auckland.
The company is developing a second launch site in Virginia, which should be ready for its first mission by end of year.
In hosting an active commercial space launch facility, New Zealand is well ahead of Australia.
So when will Australia conduct the first launch by a private company?
Access to space – conducting its own launches – is a central pillar of the new Australian Space Strategy, which nominates a time frame of 2021 or beyond.
It may happen sooner, with Gold Coast company Gilmour Space Technologies planning a test launch of its One Vision rocket this year and to go commercial in 2021.
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