Atop an emerald green hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, at the tip of New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, sits a diminutive launch pad, built and operated by Rocket Lab, a Los Angeles, California–based aerospace company. On 8 December, a 10-day launch window will open for the second flight of the Electron, one of the world’s first rockets specifically designed to carry small satellites to orbit—a capability that intrigues many scientists.
“These small payload–dedicated launch capabilities are so important,” says aeronautical engineer Kerri Cahoy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. “They’ll let us deploy dozens to hundreds of CubeSats and provide data to weather forecasters, people monitoring agriculture, surveillance—you name it.”
In the last decade, CubeSats, measuring 10 centimeters to a side, have revolutionized space science. Cheap and expendable, they can be built and flown frequently, often in constellations with many units working together. But up until now, CubeSats have always been stowaways, hitching rides on rockets carrying larger satellites. As an alternative route, they can be launched along with cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and wait for astronauts to deploy them. But both avenues to orbit can mean waits of months or even years. And even then, they provide access to a limited number of places above our planet: either the ISS’s 400-kilometer-high, equatorial orbit, or wherever the larger satellite happens to be headed.
Rocket Lab is one of a handful of companies trying to exclusively launch small satellites—those weighing less than 500 kilograms. The 17-meter-tall Electron is designed to launch 150 kilograms to an altitude of 500 kilometers, enough capacity to pack in dozens of CubeSats. In May, a first rocket was launched successfully, although the flight was terminated before it reached its desired orbit.
The company expects that most of its customers will be private satellitemakers. The forthcoming launch, for instance, will carry satellites built by Planet Labs and Spire Global, companies that are building constellations of hundreds of CubeSats for Earth imaging and weather sensing, respectively.
But Rocket Lab CEO and Founder Peter Beck says researchers are also interested in his company. On its fifth flight, for instance, Rocket Lab is scheduled to carry 10 NASA-funded CubeSats that will include experiments to monitor space weather and Earth’s radiation belts, and conduct technology demonstrations for solar sails and on-orbit repairs. Eventually, Rocket Lab hopes to conduct flights once a week, and bring customers to almost any oddly inclined orbit they desire.
“We can achieve inclinations that others only dream of,” Beck says. “Having a dedicated launch vehicle allows you to put your spacecraft in the most optimum position for whatever science you want to do.”
Cahoy heads an MIT lab where students are creating CubeSats for Earth observation, laser-based communications, and exoplanet hunting. She says one of the main advantages for dedicated small launchers will be the ability to put satellite constellations in multiple orbital planes, allowing widespread coverage of different parts of the globe. Because CubeSats tend to break down faster than their larger kin, the quick turn-around time on launches could also help keep the constellations operating continuously. Finally, when small satellites piggyback on someone else’s ride, they need to avoid potentially causing harm to the more expensive satellite. Rockets designed specifically to carry CubeSats could permit riskier experiments, such as miniaturized propulsion systems that use volatile or pressurized fuels.
Once fully up and running, Rocket Lab expects its launches to cost a little less than $6 million. With the price split among multiple CubeSats, each experiment can reach orbit for just a few hundreds of thousands of dollars, about the same as a current piggybacking arrangement. The potential flexibility and frequency of a dedicated launcher excites researchers like Steven Reising, an electrical engineer at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who is leading a CubeSat team that will study ice and water vapor in clouds after it is launched to the ISS in May. “I think it’ll increase our access to space.”
*Correction, 6 December, 2:52 p.m.: A previous version of the story misstated the estimated cost of a Rocket Lab launch.