Never before has New Zealand had a space program, but that will be changing in the near future. Led by California-based aerospace company Rocket Lab, the South Pacific nation may soon send as many as one commercial rocket per week into space, essentially doubling the number of launches executed in the U.S. every year.
Last week, New Zealand granted permission to Rocket Lab to conduct test launches of its Electron rocket. Barring any weather delays or technical problems, the first of three test flights could happen as soon as Monday.
"We are all incredibly excited to get to this point," said Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck, according to a report from Florida Today. "Our talented team has been preparing for years for this opportunity and we want to do our best to get it right."
With plans to start actual missions by the end of the year, Rocket Lab will use its signature space vehicle to transport small devices and satellites into low Earth orbit. The equipment will be used by companies and agencies, including NASA, for various projects such as monitoring crops and providing internet service.
The lightweight Electron rocket, measuring less than 60-feet tall, is made of carbon fiber. Using an electric engine for propulsion after launch, it can carry up to 331 pounds of equipment. At only $5 million per launch, using Rocket Lab to get into space is much more affordable than other competitors, like Elon Musk's SpaceX.
Rocket Lab designed the Electron to weigh much less than the typical rocket made by other aerospace companies. This lighter weight keeps fuel consumption during launch to a minimum. Additionally, unlike other designs, Rocket Lab created the rocket to be disposable.
In preparation for New Zealand's first space program, the country's government quickly set up an agency to help create and monitor new space laws and regulations. For now, the new department employs just 10 people.
"So far, it's only superpowers that have gone into space," said Simon Bridges, New Zealand's economic development minister, as cited by ABC News. "For us to do it, and be in the first couple of handfuls of countries in the world, is pretty impressive."
Bridges anticipates hundreds of millions in new revenue for the country. If Rocket Lab is successful, he predicts high-paying jobs and new industries related to the space program will soon be coming to New Zealand.
Generally known for wine and tourism, New Zealand is an ideal place for a space program. With skies generally clear of clouds and air traffic, Rocket Lab expects to send at least 50 rockets into space every year. While a lofty goal, Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation in Washington, D.C., thinks the company can reach its goal relatively soon.
Just a few years ago, a small, lightweight rocket would not have a place in a market dominated by space vehicles capable of launching large, house-sized satellites. However, changing technology has made way for much smaller, less expensive satellites still powerful enough for commercial use by companies and governments. Even though there are several other companies competing with Rocket Lab for control of the small satellite business, Stallmer is confident there is plenty of room in the ever-growing marketplace for everybody to prosper.
Besides NASA, other companies like Moon Express and Spire have signed on for services provided by Rocket Lab once the New Zealand space program is up and running. Moon Express has an ambitious plan that uses an Electron rocket to put a robotic lander on the moon later this year.
Rocket Lab builds the Electron rocket in a manufacturing facility located in Auckland, New Zealand. Once the test flights are completed and commercial missions begin, the company hopes the New Zealand space program will make the South Pacific country famous for more than just farming and spectacular scenery.
[Featured Image by Phil Walter/Getty Images]