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Successful launch puts New Zealand in space race

By AFP 25 May 2017

A private New Zealand-based company joined the exclusive space-race club on Thursday with the successful launch of a Rocket Lab test craft named Electron.

The rocket blasted off from the company’s facility at Mahia, on the east coast of the North Island, to end three days of launch attempts aborted because of the weather.

“Made it to space. Team delighted. More to follow!” aerospace company Rocket Lab tweeted as New Zealand became the 11th country to launch into space.

It was the world’s first successful launch from a private site, and was seen as a further advancement in the move towards private enterprise carrying small satellites and other cargo towards the stars.

“In the past, it’s been countries that go to space, not companies,” said Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck.

“We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years.

“We’ve worked tirelessly to get to this point. We’ve developed everything in house, built the world’s first private orbital launch range, and we’ve done it with a small team.”

However, while the rocket reached space, it did not reach orbit.

“We’ll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our programme, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business,” Beck added.

New Zealand Economic Development Minister Simon Bridges hailed the launch as the government set aside NZ$15 million (US$10.5 million) for the country’s space programme.

“New Zealand is now one of 11 countries able to launch satellites into space from their own territory and the first to launch from a fully private orbital launch range,” he said.

Beck said Rocket Lab was committed to making space accessible and at full production, expected to launch more than 50 times a year.

Rocket Lab’s commercial phase will see Electron fly already-signed customers including NASA, Spire, Planet, Moon Express and Spaceflight.

The launch is the first of three planned tests before Rocket Lab begins providing customers commercial satellite opportunities.

The 17-metre (55.7-foot) rocket — which uses an engine with 3D-printed and battery-powered components — is said to have reached speeds of more than 27,000 kilometres per hour during the two-and-a-half-minute flight into space.

Beck has said that while there would be some celebrations following the successful launch, the main party would wait until they reached the commercial stage of taking satellite cargo into orbit.

Although a New Zealand firm, Rocket Lab’s main backers include US companies Kholsa Ventures, Beesemer Venture Partners, Data Collective, Promus Ventures and Lockheed Martin. DM

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