New Zealand launches first 3D-printed rocket from a private site

New Zealand has created new rocket legislation and set up a space agency in anticipation of becoming a low-cost space hub.

New Zealand launches into space race with 3D-printed rocket
A supplied image of the launch and maiden flight of a battery-powered, 3-D printed rocket built by Rocket Lab, a Silicon Valley-funded space launch company, at New Zealand's remote Mahia Peninsula, May 25, 2017. Reuters

Rocket Lab, a Los Angeles and New Zealand-based rocket firm, has launched a battery-powered, 3-D printed rocket into space from New Zealand's remote Mahia Peninsula on Thursday.

This is the first from a private launch facility and is important step in the commercial race to bring down financial and logistical barriers to space while also making New Zealand an unlikely space hub.

"Made it to space. Team delighted," Rocket Lab said on its official Twitter account.

The Silicon Valley-funded space launch company has touted its service as a way for companies to get satellites into orbit regularly.

"Our focus with the Electron has been to develop a reliable launch vehicle that can be manufactured in high volumes – our ultimate goal is to make space accessible by providing an unprecedented frequency of launch opportunities," said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and chief executive in a statement.

The firm had spent the past four years preparing for the test launch. Last week, it received the confirmation from the US Federal Aviation Administration, which is monitoring the flight. However, bad weather had delayed the rocket from taking off three times this week.

New Zealand has created new rocket legislation and set up a space agency in anticipation of becoming a low-cost space hub. But, whenever a rocket is launched, the ships and planes need re-routing. It limits the opportunities in crowded US skies.

New Zealand, a country of 4 million people in the South Pacific, has only Antarctica to its south. The country is also well-positioned to send satellites bound for a north-to-south orbit around the poles. But many local residents in the predominantly Māori community were not happy with access to public areas blocked.

"People come to Mahia so they can go to the beach and it's been chopped off now and by the sounds of it one of these rockets are going to be launching one every 30 days so they've taken over our lifestyle," Mahia farmer Pua Taumata told Reuters.

But, Taumata also said the programme could bring opportunities.

"I'm for technology ... a lot of things could come of it through education. It gives our children something different in their careers. Nobody thought to get into the space industry (before now)," he added.

Rocket Lab is one of about 30 companies and agencies worldwide that is developing small satellite launchers as an alternative to firms jostling for space on larger launches or paying around US$50 million for a dedicated service. In a statement, the company said that it has now received US$148 million in funding and is valued in excess of US$1 billion.

NASA, earth-imaging firm Planet and startups Spire and Moon Express are a few customers of Rocket Lab. The firm will carry out two more tests before it starts commercial operations, slated to begin towards the end of this year.

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