Science and Exploration

Kiwi Rocket Heads For Space

By Keith Cowing
May 24, 2013
Filed under

Update: from @rocketlabnz: “A successful launch! Lift off at 2.28pm and an exemplary 22 second burn. The team are ecstatic! NZ, thank you for all your support! — Awaiting GPS coordinates over the Iridium network. The payload section is expected to be around 50 kilometres NE of Great Mercury Island.” Launch video

Earlier release from RocketLab below:

Update: from @rocketlabnz: “A successful launch! Lift off at 2.28pm and an exemplary 22 second burn. The team are ecstatic! NZ, thank you for all your support! — Awaiting GPS coordinates over the Iridium network. The payload section is expected to be around 50 kilometres NE of Great Mercury Island.” Launch video

Earlier release from RocketLab below:

Private aerospace company Rocket Lab is preparing for a historic first launch into space from New Zealand. The Atea-1 launch vehicle is scheduled to fly the week beginning November 30th from Great Mercury Island. The exact launch date and time is weather dependent.

One of the company’s key aims it to make space more accessible to a broader market. As part of the first launch Rocket Lab is auctioning a small amount of payload space on Trade Me for New Zealanders and on eBay for the international market, with the successful bidders securing VIP positions at the launch.

Based on significant interest for payload space on previous international launches and the high profile nature of the launch, the Internet auctions provide a unique marketing opportunity. Rocket Lab expects a wide variety of parties to consider being involved. There will likely be commercial parties wanting to launch their product or service into space, through to people wanting to launch a sentimental / memento payload such as photos, jewellery or an item of significance. It is also expected that the auctions will attract interest from space enthusiasts that want to be part of the VIP viewing party at Great Mercury Island.

This is the first launch in a series where the primary payload will be instrumentation measuring the vehicle’s performance. Space Services Inc will be including a payload on Atea-1’s first launch. Space Services Inc is a Texas-based aerospace company with a heritage encompassing nearly 30 years in private sector space missions. The Atea-1 program is significant because it will:

  • Be the first privately owned company in the Southern Hemisphere to launch a rocket to space
  • Launch the Southern Hemisphere’s first commercial space programme
  • Be the first commercial sounding rocket to use new hybrid fuel technology
  • Use a unique low-emission fuel that allows more flight options compared to conventional solid fuel rockets
  • Give the global scientific community the first practical alternative to conventional rockets – at significantly lower cost

The rocket produces over 1,500 lbs of thrust and is designed specifically for scientific sub-orbital ‘sounding’ missions. It will travel at Mach 5 to an altitude of 120 kilometres (space starts at 100 kilometres) then return to Earth in a sub-orbital ballistic arc, to be recovered from a splashdown at sea. It has a payload of just two kilogram’s. This weight however is more than enough for modern miniaturised scientific instruments.

The final flight qualification tests were completed on the avionics package on November 1st. A low altitude flight test was conducted and the flight vehicle was purposely put into a complex flight profile including spin and pitch oscillations. The avionics package was able to resolve all of these complicated motions and make the correct decisions, resulting in a successful recovery of the test flight vehicle. Peter Beck, Rocket Lab CEO, says, “We have been extremely pleased with progress made during the flight qualification phase. It has provided us with valuable data on vehicle performance and we feel ready for our first space shot.”

The island and month is a fitting place for conducting this historic launch, as its namesake is derived 240 years ago from Captain James Cook’s observation of the transit of Mercury in November of 1769. Rocket Lab is currently focused on completing assembly and check out of the first Atea-1 vehicle and setting up the launch site at Great Mercury Island as the company works towards the final countdown. END Call Peter Beck on 09 373 2721 or 027 625 3869. For more information please go to:

Fast Facts

  • Payload: 2kg
  • Weight wet 60kg
  • Height 6m tall
  • Thrust 83,000Ns (3,200Hp)
  • Fuel: Polymer and Nitrous Oxide Hybrid
  • Maximum acceleration: 16G
  • Terminal velocity: Mach 5 (5 times the speed of sound).
  • Maximum altitude: 120km/h
  • Flight time: 30-40 minutes
  • Engine burn time: 12-15 seconds


  • Global scientific community aiming for space ‘soundings’ (naval parlance)
  • Enter space at 100km altitude, up to 120km, i.e., in micro-gravity but follow high ballistic curve and return to Earth
  • There is a mature space industry in the Northern Hemisphere based on conventional solid fuel technology (which has several constraints)
  • Virtually an untapped market in the Southern Hemisphere, which has a dearth of high altitude and near space data
  • There is strong potential for growth into the Northern Hemisphere space market

Unique Features of Rocket Lab Launch Vehicles

  • Purpose-built for scientific instrumentation
  • Ideal size for low-cost science projects. The 2kg payload is sufficient for most science projects, however a bigger rocket is in development.
  • Throttleable engine means launch and flight can be tuned to project requirements (larger rockets have bigger g-forces. Scientists would appreciate not having to build their instruments to withstand them)
  • Greenfield development of support infrastructure avoids legacy system costs e.g. using satellite tracked GPS signal for recovery avoids usual RDF infrastructure
  • Unique fuel has minimal environmental impact AND unlike other solid fuels is NOT classified as a Dangerous Goods under category 1.1, requiring only basic handling safeguards. Polymer is perfectly safe away from oxidiser (liquid nitrous oxide)
  • Low risk and cost associated with Rocket Lab fuel means many more potential launch sites and higher frequency of launches
  • Uses ‘hybrid’ engine design, with solid fuel and liquid oxidiser. Design principle is well understood (and will be used for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two passenger rockets) but availability of conventional rockets in the Northern Hemisphere has stalled hybrid development
  • Rocket Lab has designed a unique fuel with environmental and handling safety advantages over conventional fuels
  • The rocket is extremely efficient and is constructed almost entirely out of high performance carbon
  • composites resulting in a payload to vehicle weight ratio significantly improved on vehicles currently being offered by agencies such as NASA.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.