After three years of developing a brand new rocket, aerospace startup Rocket Lab has finally transported a finished vehicle to the New Zealand launch pad where it will take its first flight. The rocket, called the Electron, has been tested on the ground over the last year but has never been flown to space before. Over the next couple of months, Rocket Lab will conduct a series of test launches of the vehicle to verify that it’s ready to carry payloads into orbit for commercial customers.
Compared to other major commercial rockets like the Falcon 9 or the Atlas V, the Electron is pretty small — only 55 feet tall and and around 4 feet in diameter. That’s because the vehicle is specifically designed to launch small satellites. The vehicle can carry payloads ranging from 330 to 500 pounds into an orbit more than 300 miles up. That’s a relatively light lift contrasted with the Falcon 9, which can carry more than 50,000 pounds into lower Earth orbit.
But Rocket Lab isn’t interested in competing with major players like SpaceX or the United Launch Alliance. The company wants to capitalize solely on what is being hailed as the small satellite revolution — a trend of making space probes as tiny as possible. Typically, aerospace manufacturers will spend years and millions of dollars developing a satellite that’s roughly the size of a bus. And then an entire rocket is needed just to get one thousand-pound satellite into space. But technology has advanced in recent years, and companies have come up with ways to miniaturize their satellites, making these space probes as small as a shoebox. Small satellites usually take less time and money to make, and since they’re so compact, multiple probes can be launched to space on a single rocket.
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