A small rocket from a little-known company rose last week from the east coast of New Zealand and carried a clutch of small satellites.
This modest event – the first commercial launch by the US and New Zealand, known as the Rocket Lab – could mark the beginning of a new era in the space industry where many small rockets fly off from spacecrafts around the world. This miniaturization of rockets and spacecraft places space space within reach of a wider economic circle.
The rocket, called the electron, is just a strand compared to the giant rockets Elton Musk of SpaceX and Jeffrey Bezos of blue origin are supposed to have sent people to the solar system.
The electron is only 56 feet high and can only carry 500 pounds in space. But Rocket Lab is working to bring the markets closer to home.
"We are FedEx," said Peter Beck, founder of New Zealand and CEO of Rocket Lab. "We are the little man who delivered the shipment to your door."
For Rocket Lab, a number of novice companies are also jockeying to ensure space transportation for a growing number of small satellites. The payload includes constellations of telecommunication satellites that will give the world ubiquitous access to the Internet.
The mission of this mission, which Rocket Lab famously called "It's a business day," offered a glimpse of the future: two ships for tracking ships for Spire Global; small satellite for climate and environmental monitoring for GeoOptics; a small probe built by high school students in Irvine, California, and a demonstration version of the towing sail that pushes the defunct satellites out of the orbit.
Space Angels, an investment firm dealing with space businesses, is tracking 150 small startup companies.
Chad Anderson, Managing Director of Space Angel, said that although most of these companies fail, a small group has financial and engineering resources to get out of the country.
Every company on Anderson's list offers its own business intention or ability: Vector Launch Inc. focuses on mass production; Virgin Orbit, part of the business empire of Richard Branson, will reduce its missiles from bottom 747 to 35,000 feet; Relativity Space plans to use a 3D printer to produce almost all pieces of its rockets; Firefly Aerospace will offer at stake a slightly larger rocket that small satellites will grow a bit in size and weight; and Gilmour Space Technologies is a rare Australian airline.
There is also Astra Space Inc., which operates in a secret regime like the beginning of Silicon Valley, and does not say anything it does.
Business is diminishing
Rockets are shrinking because satellites are shrinking.
In the past, massive telecommunication satellites moved 22,000 miles above the equator in a geosynchronous orbit, where the satellite still stays above the same place on Earth. Since satellite broadcasts were so expensive, it made sense to pack them as much as possible.
Advances in technology and computer chips have enabled smaller satellites to perform the same tasks as their predecessors. And the constellation of hundreds or thousands of small satellites orbiting at lower altitudes that are easier to reach can emulate as soon as possible from a fixed geosynchronous position.
"It's really a market shift," Beck said. "It used to be the size of the microwave and exactly the same power."
Some companies have already launched satellites to observe the Earth. Other are promising space-based Internet systems like OneWeb and SpaceX Starlink.
Up to now, small space ships have been cast on a rocket path alongside a larger satellite. This path is cheaper but inconvenient because the plan is set by the main customer. If a large satellite is delayed, even the smaller ones remain on the ground.
"You can not do business like that," Beck said.
Elektron, Beck said, could lift more than 60 percent of the spacecraft that last year went into orbit. Instead, space analysts are interested in how much of the market exists for behemoths like SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, which had its first spectacular launch in February.
Falcon Heavy can lift a payload 300 times heavier than Rocket Lab Electron, but it costs $ 90 million compared to Electron $ 5 million. While the SpaceX standard Falcon 9 missile has a lack of customers, Heavy has announced only half a dozen customers in the coming years.
The US Army – the primary customer of large rocket vehicles – also re-evaluates its spy satellites. The system would be more resilient, some analysts believe that its capabilities have spread among many smaller satellites. Smaller satellites would be easier and faster to replace, and the enemy could destroy them.
Pit stops in a space race
The SpaceX space could have been on the market ten years ago.
His first rocket, Falcon 1, was designed to raise about £ 1,500. But after just two successful launches, SpaceX abandoned it, focusing on a much larger Falcon 9 to serve the NASA's NASA needs cargo, and eventually the cosmonauts at the International Space Station.
Jim Cantrell, one of SpaceX's earliest employees, said he did not understand this decision and left the company. In 2015, Vector Launch Inc. based in Tucson, Arizona. Its goal is to create a T rocket model – small, inexpensive, mass-produced.
The vector claims it can send its missiles in orbit from almost anywhere where it can create a mobile starter platform that is essentially a heavily modified trailer. This trailer was inspired by the Cantrell hobby, racing car and many of the company's employees also came from the racing world.
The company is still striving to meet its goal of achieving the first Vector-R orbit this year, but Cantrell has admitted that the schedule could fall by the beginning of 2019. A flight termination system – a hardware that shuts off the missile if everything goes wrong – comes late.
"There are many small things," Cantrell said. "You're crazy."
For the prototype, a suborbital start was launched from Mojave, California, in September, but a defect occurred and the test was canceled. The crew built a rocket into a trailer for a racing vehicle and took her to a test site in the village of Pinal Airpark, a small airport half an hour outside of Tucson, surrounded by 350 acres of bush desert.
Vector test stands for single engine firing, as well as completed rocket stages. During the recent visit of the editor on the web, engineers have solved problems with the launch of rocket prototypes and the development of their upper engine.
Soon the team is going to the Pacific Spaceport Complex, on the Kodiak Island of Alaska, for the first orbital start. Next year, Cantrell said the company hopes to bring dozens of rockets into the universe.
In a few years, it could be launched 100 times a year, not only from Kodiak, but also from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Wallops Island in Virginia where Rocket Lab agreed in October to build its second launch complex. The vector is also looking for other trigger points, one of which is at the Cortez Sea in Mexico.
Tom Markusic, another Starcraft veteran of SpaceX, also sees the opportunity to get smaller satellites into space.
"I did not feel that this size should be suitable for this market," he said.
Markusic said that the need for stronger antennas and cameras would eventually trigger the construction of somewhat larger small satellites and that it would be beneficial if several could be run simultaneously. He launched Firefly in 2014, in order to build a rocket, Alpha, which would raise the cargo to 900 pounds in orbit.
The company grew to 150 employees and received a contract from NASA. But in the uncertainty about the departure of Britain from the European Union, the European investor avoided.
An American investor has also become frustrating, Markusic said after the SpaceX rocket exploded on the dashboard in 2016. Firefly stopped and employees lost their jobs
At auction, a Ukrainian businessman, Max Polyakov, one of the Firefly investors, resurrected the company. Markusic took the opportunity to re-evaluate the Alpha missile, which is now able to run more than £ 2,000.
"Alpha is essentially Falcon 1 with some better technology," he said.
Markusic said his contest is not a smaller Rocket Lab, Vector or Virgin Orbit rocket, but foreign competitors like a government-subsidized missile from India and commercial efforts in China. But he complimented Rocket Lab.
"They are before all the others," he said. "I think he deserves a lot of credit."
Firefly plans to launch the first Alpha missile in December 2019.
Ride a bus in orbit
Not everyone is convinced that the small satellite market will be as robust as expected.
"This equation has weaknesses at every turn," said Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, an avionics consultancy firm.
Three quarters of venture capital firms fail, he said, and of course companies that want to build small satellites will of course also fail. It is also skeptical that space internet will prevail against ground alternatives.
"Publicly, there are no compelling business plans," she said.
This means that the market for small rockets could cause a lack of business. She said that the key to survival would be to use the needs of the US, especially the army. Virgin Orbit, Vector and Rocket Lab were the current front runners.
Small rocket companies must also compete with Spaceflight Industries, a Seattle company that sells space on larger rockets that are not taken over from the main payload. In addition, Spaceflight wants to buy all the missiles launched by other companies, including Rocket Lab, and sells space for payloads to a number of companies heading for a similar orbit.
The first such flight, which uses SpaceX Falcon 9, is to launch 70 satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base this year, which the company compares with an orbit bus.
Curt Blake, the president of Spaceflight, said both approaches could work. Buses are cheaper, but less comfortable and sometimes timely lifting from the taxi is worth the added cost.
Anderson of Space Angels was also optimistic. "Today's difference is how robust the industry is," he said. "Today the industry will be able to cope with failure."
While this sector is in its original state, Rocket Lab does not intend to waste time: it hopes that it will soon follow "It's Trading Time" with a second commercial launch next month and then a third a month.
"We're very focused on another 100 missiles, not another missile," Beck said. "One thing is getting into the orbit, it's another thing to do around the clock."