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Rocket Launch in New Zealand Brings Quick, Cheap Space Access (bloomberg.com)
291 points by pseudolus 72 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 196 comments

The years I spent in New Zealand painted a vivid picture of a society of doers. I think there’s something to the idea that this comes in part from being a landmass the size of Colorado, with not much more than 4 million people, with the freedom and requirements to maintain the infrastructure of being a sovereign nation.

Seeing a NZ rocket launch condures an image of a small group of doers dreaming big. Way to go NZ!

Wait, isn't Rocket Lab an american company, and they're just locating the rocket in NZ?

Founders were Kiwis but HQ is in California...

It is what US client states have to do to succeed. The US, sensibly, put its own interests first and dictates US content limits and export controls but the closest allies give up the most in the relationship. Rocket Lab has found a really sensible compromise that satisfies US hegemony and still allows high tech industry development in NZ. I am sure countries like the UK, Australia and Canada are watching.

Is a Kiwi rocket company that is forced to be half based in the US to satisfy US legislation any more American than an American rocket company that uses Russian built engines and other components sourced from Europe? The flag waving denies the reality that space is a global industry.

The rocket uses a fair amount of ITAR-restricted technology, which means that they needed a pretty robust US-based organization and engine manufacturing. The company also sold a bunch of suborbital rocket launches to the US government before they raised money to build an orbital rocket. And the money mostly came from US-based VCs. All of these details feed into the company HQ being in the US, but a majority of their employees appear to be in NZ.

ITAR restricts US parts. It does not apply to non US technology sources although Wassenar and MTCR are multilateral. It would be possible to make rockets with no ITAR covered parts. After all that's what Russia France and China have.

Russian and Chinese rockets are definitely covered by ITAR. ITAR isn't a trade barrier or patent protection. It doesn't care about national origin. It applies to all export of relevant technologies from the US. So if you imported a Russian rocket into the US, its further export would be a violation of ITAR rules regardless of where that rocket first came from.

Right, but if you are importing a Russian rocket to somewhere not US, you don't have to worry.

Most of them work out by the Auckland airport. A really good friend of mine works there as an engineer. He works some absolutely insane hours. I couldn't do it personally, but they all really believe in rockets and they've had some amazing success.

Mission Control was in Auckland.They used to be an NZ company but incorporated in the US to get a launch license as it was apparently much easier as a US company. Most of their work and staff is still in NZ

As mentioned yesterday in the live cast, design and manufacturing is happening in Huntington Beach, California, then it is shipped to New Zealand.

Engines and avionics, but the rocket bodies, fairings, etc., are made in NZ and final assembly is there. In this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nj9BncsgvuQ the CEO talks about how that has been advantageous because apparently there's a large talent pool in carbon composite fabrication in NZ, and that while there are eventually plans to also launch from the US, when they do they'll still be making bodies in NZ and shipping them, and doing final assembly with US-made engines on the US side for those launches.

> apparently there's a large talent pool in carbon composite fabrication in NZ

Wonder how much of that was from building faster yachts for Team New Zealand?

Yep, the America's Cup success lead to recognition of NZ's somewhat burgeoning super-yacht industry, which in turn fed back more talented craftsman, fabricators, designers.

Speaking of carbon composite fabrication talent in NZ, I remember at an airshow in NZ a few years ago there was a company making a helicopter with an entirely composite airframe. Not sure what ended up happening to it, but it was interesting to see such cutting edge technology coming coming out of such a small company with minimal funding.

John Britten's superbike in the 1990s was also a pioneer for all sorts of composite manufacturing

Us Kiwis have always been good at that kind of thing though. There's actually a very healthy aviation technology and manufacturing industry here, especially for such a small country.

Was just listening to an interview with Peter Beck. He clarifies the US-NZ question. Short answer is it is both, I had my proportions off with being more (3/4) American now. It's been American company since 2012. The US factory is 3 times larger than the NZ factory and makes stuff we're can't do here.


It's more of a New Zealand company with enough presence in the US to be legal for ITAR purposes.

How do you get to that? Their rockets are designed and manufactured in the US. Their money has largely been from the US. They're incorporated in the US. They're using US technology and engineering.

That's a long ways from the minimal contribution you're implying.

see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocket_Lab

The manufacturing is in New Zealand. I don't know about design, but I understood that design is also done in New Zealand. They received money from the US and they cooperated with NASA, and for that they needed to have facilities in the US, but I don't know how much.

They now opened a second launch facility in the US, but that is not a large operation compared to design, manufacturing and testing the rockets.

Articles from the past make it sound like a New Zealand company with a corporate structure that is a legal fiction to be legal in the US.



Engines and avionics are manufactured in Huntington Beach.


Sweet as!

It's unfortunate that the doers leave NZ as soon as possible to do stuff elsewhere most of the time.

I really wish Ireland could embrace the same attitude of NZ.

So why did you leave? (Asking because I have an opportunity to move there.)

I was born and raised in New Zealand, but left soon after graduating university for Australia. The pay in New Zealand is just not that good, especially with house prices rising the way they have been over the past decade.

Upon saying that, if I grow old and have kids, I'd love to move back. Good work-life balance, relaxed lifestyle, and ready access to the outdoors. 30% of the land in New Zealand is conservation land owned by the government and publicly accessible. If you live outside of Auckland, you can get outside the city in half an hour, and be in proper wilderness within an hour. All the major cities are coastal too, with great beaches in the summer (although the water is rather cold year round).

It's definitely a great place if you have children. New Zealand is an incredibly egalitarian country due to its small size. I noticed a big contrast between NZ and Australia when I moved to Australia with how much people here talk about their background. People in Australia talk a lot more about their cultural heritage (e.g. whether their ancestors were Italian, British, or wherever else), and there's a lot more elitism about where people went to high school (private schools are very popular in Australia, not so much in NZ) and where they went to university. Since NZ only really has one university per city, people don't really care where you went to university, whereas Melbourne has like 7 universities, and there's a lot of elitism about what university you manage to get into.

You should totally do it, and go to Wellington. It's the best city :-P I lived there for three years and miss it. I might try to get another work visa, either to go back to Welly or Melbourne.

So same question: why did you go away, or how did you loose your work visa?

For me it's a cool job in Auckland. What worries us is the distance and the logistics of bringing over our entire family... I can see myself working there, bringing over the family, and then loosing my job e.g. because of some recession and not find another job in the grace period.

I started with a Holiday Work visa and later applied for and got a regular work visa (was working full time in tech, so they're easy to get).

eh, I left for some complicated personal reasons. I wrote a post about it if you're interested: https://khanism.org/perspective/minimalism/

edit: my visa was still good though; could have easily paid to get my work to residence or full residence visas. Kinda wish I had. :-P

Thx best of luck to you :-)

If you are in IT then I would not worry to much about the job issue to much past the first job, there is still plenty of demand for skilled IT workers despite the record net migration of the last few years. However, make sure you are comfortable with housing prices / rent, particularly in the Auckland area.

I left NZ decades ago due to lack of software opportunities. I'd be tempted to return, but getting a "first job" in NZ would be a problem if I returned, I think, given that I'm aged over 50 and haven't worked for years.

P.S. Avoid Wellington if possible, it's an earthquake mega-disaster waiting to happen.

> P.S. Avoid Wellington if possible, it's an earthquake mega-disaster waiting to happen.

What, just like California?

I would highly recommend Wellington if you do software, are entrepreneurial, or you are sociable.

It is the most cosmopolitan city, the friendliest to foreigners, the friendliest to all ages (because so many people move there to work, and it is the only major city in NZ with a city centre based on walking).

Just my opinion as a well travelled NZer. Yes, an earthquake would wreak havoc, but I think the positives well outweigh the risks.

>> P.S. Avoid Wellington if possible, it's an earthquake mega-disaster waiting to happen.

> What, just like California?

I tend to think like the parent, so am curious where our imaginations diverge. Basically, I'd worry about a violent enough earthquake that lots of people/supplies immediately need to be moved in/out, but their movement is impeded by the geography. It seems likely that the two roads out of town would be impassible (isn't one on land that lifted out of the water in a major quake?), and the airport and waterfront are mostly on reclaimed land so will likely need substantial work before boats/planes can operate.

It's a lovely city though - second best in NZ to Dunedin!

Wellington is hosting KiwiCon later this week too: https://www.kiwicon.org/

Wellington is a terrible risk, there's a major fault line running right through the city. But yeah, it's a decent place to live in the meantime.

And there are some simple ways to make sure your earthquake risks are lower than other risks in your life.

1. Don't work in old buildings - especially hipster brick ones. (Maybe if they have added steel structure that looks ridiculously oversized: see Dux Central, what was Twisted Hop in Christchurch).

2. Avoid living on hills with unstable geology.

3. Avoid living in old apartments that are not up to 100% earthquake code.

Liquifaction really isn't as big an issue as you might think.

Anecdote: my parents are on top of the 7.2 Darfield quake, my sister's is very close to the 7.8 Kaikoura epicentre, and I live in Christchurch.

Unfortunately you've described the majority of Wellington's buildings. Wellington is old timber houses on hills, or poorly built apartments on reclaimed land in the harbour, most of which are not up to earthquake code, and aren't required to be for another decade.

> Wellington is old timber houses on hills

These seem to do ok and have been tested on some decent shakes, unlike some of the new code-compliment buildings. Chimneys are a notable exception.

The risk with the housing stock on Wellington's hills isn't that they'll fall over, timber houses on piles are quite safe in earthquakes as they are very flexible. The main risk is landslides.

Although, it should be mentioned that the weather is also terrible. I'll never forget that wind.

And they regularly get cracking good days too. Personally I prefer the Wellington weather to Christchurch (nor-wester, hayfever, overcast, too hot or too cold), or Auckland (I really don't like Auckland's weather).

For me the best places in NZ for weather are Nelson, or North of Kaitaia (the winterless North, although rains).

Nothing beats Wellington on a good day.

The less there is to celebrate the more we celebrate it! Wellington is my favourite city, but I like a good fire so may be biased.

New Zealand's software industry is significantly more mature than it was 2+ decades ago. Multiple firms with several hundred developers building their own products rather than just government consulting.

Getting hired is hard, but not impossible. The unemployment rate is sub 4% these days.

If you're concerned about your employability, perhaps email Xero/Vend/Flux Federation/Catalyst IT/Intergen/Datacom/Trade Me/Weta Digital/... and explain your situation?

If you're willing to work with recruiters, the team at Talent Army are bona fide good.

My main worry is that I'll effectively be a guest labourer. If I loose my job in Auckland, I have a grace period and if I fail to find another job within this period (e.g. because we're in the middle of a global recession cleaning out overinvestment in startups) I can ship my kids back home across half the planet...

Permanent residency is fairly easy to get in New Zealand if you work in tech and have a degree, especially if your job offer is outside Auckland or pays over $100k.

Have a look at the residency points calculator and see how many you get: https://www.immigration.govt.nz/new-zealand-visas/apply-for-...

Yep but they've toughened it up a bit in recent years (good for NZ to do so, in my humble opinion -- without wanting go into politics, I wish my own native country would do something similar). A few years ago I would have gotten permanent residency immediately. Now apparently it's really necessary, de facto, to have worked there before applying for it.

Thanks, if I get serious I'll look into it.

One of the reasons I moved from Wellington to Melbourne was the earthquake risk. After the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, I realised how vulnerable Wellington is if there's a similar sized, magnitude 7-8 earthquake centred on Wellington (which there is a significant risk of). There's only one highway into Wellington, and if that gets cut off after an earthquake (which is very likely, it was down to one lane after the 2016 quake due to a storm at the same time) then Wellington is only accessible by boat.

The 2016 earthquake also showed that despite efforts to earthquake-strengthen buildings in the city, it's still very vulnerable to earthquake damage.

> it's still very vulnerable to earthquake damage.

And tsunamis.

Wellington has enough hills that tsunamis never had me particularly worried.

It also has some flat areas by the sea - Lyall bay / Kilburnie, Mirimar, Petone. The Tsunami risk to Wellington is, in my opinion, severely underrated.

IT != software engineering. IT is always one of the cost centers of a company. Every software company (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc.) has an IT department. IT is like doing desktop support or networking. Need a new laptop? Can't login? Call IT. The software engineers who write software are not part of IT. Not sure if that's what you meant though.

Yeah it's a job in IT but what if demand drops? My feeling is that people in IT have gotten a bit arrogant about their employability (not just in NZ) I remember the 2001 recession :-)

But I don't mind loosing my job for a while. We would mind having to leave the country and move back halfway across the planet after having brought over our family.

As a New Zealander working in IT (games dev), I would agree with the criticism that NZ cost of living is high and house ownership is expensive (esp. in Auckland) and wages are relatively low. However, the other criticisms I saw reported here about cafes closing at 3pm(!) and Australians being more open-minded are just bizarre. The NZ game dev community is very warm and sharing (actually, the Australian game-devs are too)

Don't do it. I grew up there. Parochial, small-minded, cliquey people, all the money is in construction and farming rather than tech, poor range of jobs, low wages, and relatively expensive real estate.

I moved to Australia, found more interesting work at more than double the salary. Nicer weather and more genuine people, and real multicultural culture due to truly international big cities.

> Parochial, small-minded, cliquey people, all the money is in construction and farming rather than tech, poor range of jobs, low wages, and relatively expensive real estate

It's funny that you moved to Australia and complain that NZ is parochial and small minded. I've found Australia to be even worse, although Sydney and Melbourne are large enough that you can self select into groups of people where you avoid that. Australia is multicultural, sure, but not in an inclusionary way. When was the last time New Zealand had race riots?

Real estate in Melbourne and Sydney aren't exactly affordable either, unless you enjoy a 1 hour commute each direction daily.

Australia has great pay, and Melbourne and Sydney are great for the big city life if that's what you enjoy (which I do). Remember as well that if you're a New Zealand citizen in Australia you're essentially treated as a guest worker, you get minimal government benefits, regardless of how long you've lived here, and technically your visa is subject to cancelation at any time (although if you're not a criminal that's not a particular issue).

Agreed, you could have been talking about Brisbane/SE Qld as well. Just swap farming for mining.

Real estate prices relative to wages have been in the extremely unaffordable range for a decade and construction continues to be propped up to protect years of misguided investment in what is a ponzi scheme in all but name.

But also 30% tax rate, totally open for business, common law, beautiful nature, forced by their difficult geographic location "to try harder" and be more open. I would also say that being a small country puts a limit to having big political ambitions. Many safe, wealthy, stable countries are small and sovereign (or were at least originally based on "small-minded" localist politics). I can see NZ become some kind of Pacific Switzerland -- which arguably is also built on a substrate of conservative or "parochial" people.

And is NZ not just as multicultural as Australia?

And finally: another commenter here responded "New Zealand's software industry is significantly more mature than it was 2+ decades ago." Can you understand what he means by that? When did you leave NZ?

I hope you care to elaborate, we have to decide next week so any opinion is welcome, especially if you grew up there :-)

I also grew up in New Zealand, and it's not for me. It's great if you want to start a family and have a very quiet life. I think I might retire there if I can somehow afford a house.

One of the main reasons I left is that I could never afford a house, or even the down-payment on a mortgage. If I had lots of money then New Zealand would probably be more appealing to me, but it's not a good place to earn it. I don't know if you'll be able to get a very competitive salary, but it might be worth it if you're really excited about the company, and you'll be working on some really interesting things.

One thing to mention is that most shops will close at 5pm, and many cafes even close at 3pm. I think once a week, the shopping malls will stay open until 10pm. The streets are completely quiet at night, and you won't see anyone walking around. After living in bigger cities for a while, I'm always really shocked when I go back for a visit. It's like a ghost town. It's an important factor for me because I work remotely, so I hated being stuck at home and having nowhere to go at 8pm.

Another very important point: You will probably have to cook almost all of your own food at home. Going out to eat at cafes and restaurant is extremely expensive, and it's probably not something that you can afford to do every day (especially not on a NZ salary.) I'm used to living in cities where it's normal to eat out at restaurants most of the time. But you can't do that in New Zealand unless you're very wealthy.

Anyway, it's great if you want to live somewhere quiet and raise a family. You can also spend lots of time at the beach, and go for walks in nature. But you can do that in lots of other countries, too. Personally, I prefer to live somewhere a bit more vibrant, where there's a lot of opportunities and things to do.

Thx for your reply! Housing is problematic in Auckland... half of the offered income would go to rent.

About family & excitement: we have little kids, so cooking at home and not going out much will be normal for us, regardless of where we live, for many years to come :-)

The wage thing is correct. Moving to NZ will cut my income by quite a bit more than 50%. But I'm fascinated with the rugged "wanting it more" vibes of NZ vs my native country. Vibes which I'm either picking correctly or just imagining. Care to comment on that?

I think you're right about the "wanting it more" vibes. Maybe also related to the "number 8 wire mentality" [1], where farmers get things done with whatever they have. There are lots of amazing inventors, scientists, and explorers from New Zealand.

I think New Zealanders seem to have a really high level of empathy compared to many other countries. There are lots of non-profit organizations that do amazing work, in addition to the awesome public healthcare system. St John [2] provides free first aid and ambulance rides to everyone, and they're a charity staffed by volunteers and run on donations (they're also in Australia and the UK.)

Also ACC [3] is an amazing safety net that most people take for granted. If you are injured in an accident and can't work any more, they will take care of you for the rest of your life. (As well as universal healthcare, we also have universal no-fault accident insurance.) We have a family friend who suffered severe brain damage in a car accident over 20 years ago. They're unable to work, and ACC is still giving them 80% of their salary (adjusted for inflation), so they are able to stay in a nice home with qualified caregivers.

So it's a pretty awesome country. It's just a bit quiet, very expensive, and the tech salaries are not very competitive.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_8_wire

[2] https://www.stjohn.org.nz

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accident_Compensation_Corporat...

I think you've really hit the nail on the head there. I also grew up in New Zealand and left for Australia for the reasons that you specified. Cost of living is the same or higher than Australia, but with lower wages. My grocery bill is almost half of what it was in New Zealand, my rent is about the same, and my salary is double what it was back home.

New Zealand is a great country if you want what it offers. If I did want to settle down and raise a family I'd sail back across the ditch in a heartbeat.

When you say double, are we talking for lower/mid-range career levels? At the upper levels, I think it's quite comparable (living & working in Auckland atm, but for a multi-national, so being paid a bit above market due to rolling RSUs).

I can't see myself earning 500k p.a. in Australia doing software PM, if so, I'm moving tomorrow :)

Even if they're paying you half your current salary? :-)

Yes, money isn't everything, it's a means to an end. A lot of Kiwis move over to Australia for 5 years or so to make a pile of savings, then move back to NZ and settle down. If you get a decent job and don't blow all your money living the big city lifestyle you can save $15-20k per year. The trades pay a lot better in Australia than New Zealand, and if you live outside central Melbourne or Sydney cost of living is fairly low.

Good points.

> many cafes even close at 3pm

That’s far too close to a black mark against NZ coffee though. The weak, lukewarm, milky liquid that is served up elsewhere is deeply depressing. The stuff I want is best not consumed late in the day.

I agree, I think the coffee and food in New Zealand is some of the best in the world. The average restaurant in Auckland is just so much better than the average restaurant in San Francisco (and many other cities I've lived in). I think there is just a really high standard in NZ, and I've had very few bad experiences at restaurants. San Francisco was like playing Russian Roulette. There's just a lot of very mediocre food. If you want to go somewhere with good reviews, you have to make a reservation well in advance, or wait in line for 2 hours. You don't have to do that so much in NZ.

I don't know what century you lived in NZ, but none of what you mentioned about shops closing is true. Sounds like when I was a kid in the 70's.

Sorry yeah, there some better places to live if you want a nightlife, like the Auckland city center or Newmarket, but that's even more expensive. (And still really quiet compared to other places in the world.)

I was talking about the suburbs in west Auckland, like Henderson, Kumeu, etc. And in smaller towns as well. One time we were thinking about moving to New Plymouth, so we stayed for a week, and that was definitely way too quiet for me.

"Parochial, small-minded, cliquey people" and so you moved to Australia? I don't believe you have ever met any Australians. Or New Zealanders. One or the other.

There is a small town mentality in NZ which is happily absent in the Australian big cities.

For instance, nobody in Oz has ever asked me what school I went to. I got asked that regularly in NZ by status-insecure middlebrow white people.

The question you're more likely to get is what school do your kids go to. Asking a New Zealander about their school back in NZ would be meaningless. You could say Raupo primary school and no one would know.

I was about to say that launching so far from the equator sounds very fuel-inefficient, but it turns out that their launchpad's latitude (39 degrees south) is nearer the equator than Russia's primary launch site, the Baikonur Cosmodrome (45 degrees north). For reference, Cape Canaveral is 28 degrees north.

TBF Baikonur is known to be a fairly bad location from an efficiency perspective if you're trying for GTO/GEO: using pretty much the same rocket, you can send 6~7t to GTO from Baikonur while you can send 10 from Kourou (on 5N).

That's why as time went on, China kept building their new launch facilities more and more southernly (Jiuquan was built on 40N in the 50s, the recently opened Wenchang sits on 19N).

It gets worse than that. The russian site also has to not fly over chinese territory, further increasing their minimum inclination. Chinese dont want thier stinking rockets falling on china. (Literally. Russian rockets use some nasty stuff that groups like SpaceX have stayed far away from.)

Only the Chinese get to drop rockets on their towns.


The Red Plume you see is Hypergolic fuels - the aforementioned "bad stuff". Highly toxic and carcinogenic.

Hypergolic doesn't mean "bad stuff", "highly toxic" or "carcinogenic" though, it just means "ignites on its own" (it's usually though not necessarily a combination of a fuel and an oxidiser[0])

Then again, hypergolic components are generally extremely toxic or ridiculously corrosive or both.

[0] generally because e.g. Chlorine Trifluoride is such a strong oxidiser it's famously[1] hypergolic with stuff not usually considered "fuel" like cloth, people, water, sand or asbestos

[1] http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2008/02/26/san...

The word hypergolic doesn't mean that, but in spaceflight the term refers to a fairly specific group of compounds; Dinitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine or monomethylhydrazine (UDMH / MMH).

mmh+nto is the only thing still being used in the west outside of missiles. even spacex use it for module maneuver. I think. not even sure why I know that.

but china probably use the lesser hypergolic combinations for actuall lift off.

> but china probably use the lesser hypergolic combinations for actuall lift off.

Yep, Long March 2, 3 and 4 use YF-20 engines (and its derivatives) which are UDMH-powered.

They're switching to LOX/Kerosene for LM5.

Possibly next-gen small fission reactors will have them looking for close-to-deep-ocean far-from-large-population launch sites again.


> Russian rockets use some nasty stuff

Do you have a source for that? What sort of "stuff"?

I'm guessing they're referring to the hypergolic propellants used on the Proton rocket? Which are, indeed, notoriously toxic.

In which case, they're not something SpaceX has shyed away from; they are indeed not used on the Falcon, but hypergols will power the SuperDraco engines on the Dragon 2.

When you need storable propellants (either for a launch escape system that needs to be ready to go at any time, or for ICBMs that can be kept in a launch-ready state), and a solid rocket won't do for whatever reason, there's just nothing else that will do the job.

> When you need storable propellants (either for a launch escape system that needs to be ready to go at any time, or for ICBMs that can be kept in a launch-ready state), and a solid rocket won't do for whatever reason, there's just nothing else that will do the job.

That is, if you don't count Soyuz landing capsule, which carries about 30 kg of hydrogen peroxide and keeps that for up to 210 days flight before landing. And if you don't count Zarya spacecraft, which - never built, but was designed to use hydrogen peroxide for powered landing ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zarya_(spacecraft) ), also after long flights. And Buran spaceplane, which used LOX and kerosine for maneuver engines able to word in a month-long flight. And Kliper spacecraft designs with propulsion on LOX and ethanol.

Even hydrogen can be made working after weeks of flight if you have large enough tanks - there was design of upper stage of N-1 with that. With Lockheed works on space tanker ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Cryogenic_Evolved_Sta... ) the time range can be extended even more. I think we can leave those toxic propellants aside when we want.

Probably UDMH and nitrogen tetroxide or nitric acid referred to as Devil's Venom in Russia apparently https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_venom

The same mix was what blew up in Damascus Titan missile explosion as told in the book Command and Control. Luckily the 9-megaton warhead didn't go off.

I recommend the book Ignition if you are interested in these things (free pdf http://library.sciencemadness.org/library/books/ignition.pdf)

That book is one of the best things ever.

" And if you, gentle reader, have never seen a nervous rocket mechanic, complete with monkey suit, being buzzed by nine thousand demented bats and trying to beat them off with a shovel, there is something missing from your experience."

They probably mean hydrazine. The Russian Proton rocket uses it, though it’s being discontinued. This isn’t a uniquely Russian oddity, by the way; the European Ariane IV and US Titan IV were still in use into the last decade.

UDMH. This is why Musk can stand beside a crashed falcon rocket while a crashed russian rocket must be approached in suits.

>must be approached in suits

Locals make a living scavenging the toxic parts and have awful health problems as a result. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2018/06/07/in-russia-...

Depends on the rocket. The Soyuz main stage only uses refined kerosene, liquid oxygen and hydrogen peroxide. The upper stages almost always use some hydrazine compound, but that’s pretty common. Almost all satellites use a storeable propellant.

As long as it didn't crash with a Dragon anyway (that uses MMH).

UDMH is not hydrazine, and is said to be worse as it doesn't biodegrade as readily as hydrazine.

UDMH, hydrazine, and MMH are all very different beasts.

UDMH and MMH are both hydrazine derivatives, classified as hydrazines, and either picked or mixed (Aerozine 50 is a 50/50 mix of hydrazine and UDMH) depending on the specific chemical and performance tradeoffs you want to make.

UDMH, hydrazine and MMH are slightly different beasts.

>Do you have a source for that? What sort of "stuff"?

Russians are still using hypergolic fuels rather than the methane/oxygen that most new generation launch vehicles are using.

Those methane-based launchers all have not yet left the design stage.

If you're launching into sun-synchronous and highly inclined or polar orbits, you want to be as far north or south as possible. They're not going for low inclination orbits, but rather the opposite, if you look at the ground track of an Iridium satellite, that's a perfect example of a polar orbit.

Spire is one of their customers, that's earth observation, perfect use case example for polar orbit.


To avoid dropping the first stage on a populated area if you're launching into a polar orbit, you also need a very empty area of land or an ocean under your flightpath. For example Israel has a domestic satellite launch capability (they're one of the few countries that launches LEO stuff westbound, to retrograde orbits) because they both can't drop first stages on the eastern neigbours, and can't launch heading north or south.

For what it's worth, this specific launch was polar, I believe. But yes, for equatorial launches, it will take a lot more dV to flatten it out.

I do like their little kick stage on top that finalizes payload delivery, though. That will be useful for this sort of thing.

This has always bothered me especially given their plans to send a rover to the moon. Launching from Tokelau, Niue or the Cook Islands would make more longterm sense.

If you think about it, the added starting velocity from launching on the equator is nice but is still only ~6% of the total velocity required to get into low Earth orbit. (0.0625 = 1.5 / 24 given orbital period in LEO is ~90 minutes and rotation period is 24 hours). Even at 45 degrees latitude you're only losing 0.707*6=4.4% of your target velocity.

The problem is not the starting velocity (which is indeed minor, and not an issue for LEO launches) it's the inclination burns you need to reach GTO/GEO.

With roughly equivalent rockets, there's a 30~40% difference in payload mass between Kourou (5°N) and Baikonur (45°N): Proton can launch 23t to LEO and 7t to GTO while Ariane 5 can send 21t to LEO and 10t to GTO.

That makes sense, I hadn't really thought about it in this context but I guess geostationary orbits kind of have to be equatorial.

Percentage of velocity is highly misleading. The rocket equation is nasty, and a small increase in velocity means a large increase in fuel requirements, or a large decrease in payload capacity.

So there's an interesting context here. This isn't the first time there were a bunch of small rocket companies around. It'll be interesting to see if RL can cross the chasm.

In the past these companies have failed because they focused on providing a launch platform. They said, "Build it and they will come". But no one did, so good vehicles died.

But timing is (probably) different now. There are many more launches per year. And not only that, but there's a few paradigm shifts that could help RL out. Small sats are becoming much more common. Electronics got smaller and thus did the satellites. But also, we've been finding that you can use off the shelf electronics if you stay in LEO. Granted, you should use ECC CPUs and memory (but don't have to), but that's a lot cheaper than silicon on sapphire.

This makes things a little different. Before there was little pressure to push down the cost of a launch. If your satellite cost $250m, what's the difference in a few million per launch? And why would you risk that on a newer company? (Why Musk sent up his Tesla) BUT if your satellites are only a few hundred thousand dollars, then there's A LOT of pressure to push down launch costs. You can take more risks on these smaller companies that don't have a good (or any!) track record.

There's a lot more going on too. But I think these small companies have a much better chance of succeeding than their ancestors.

The most impressive thing about their rockets are the motors they use.

All modern liquid rocket motors use turbo pumps to pressurize liquid fuel and drive it into the combustion chamber. All other rockets use some fuel to run a turbine that powers the pumps, with the variations being how that entire system is piped together.

The Rocket Lab motor, Rutherford, uses a lithium ion battery and electric motor to power the pumps. This reduces the amount of fuel required to lift cargo into space by about 10% compared to SpaceX’s already impressive Merlin 1D motors.

Also, they 3D print them in 24 hours, all in one part (sans electronics I suppose). Which is incredibly impressive.

A fuel burning turbine is much more mass efficient than a lithium battery powered one. And hence also makes the whole vehicle more fuel efficient.

But a turbine is much harder to develop and manufacture. Especially at small scale, the turbine is also inefficient so it has less advantage to a battery there.

It wouldn't make sense to run the Falcon 9 pumps with batteries.

I wonder how a hybrid approach like they do with freight trains would work. Generate electricity with energy-dense fuel, then use that to drive electric motors.

Hard to find any energy denser fuels than the ones they already use for main propulsion.

But yes, with a hybrid one, you could decouple the rotation rate of the turbine and the pumps. They have different optimal points. Or you could have more pump stages with different speeds. Some engines use gears for this purpose (NK-33). Some engines use two turbines, one for each pump (SSME). Also startup would be nice and easy.

>> "Hard to find any energy denser fuels than the ones they already use for main propulsion."

I phrased that poorly. I meant fuel as a class of things compared to relatively sparse batteries.

Ah yes. Still, Soyuz uses different fuel to drive the pumps from the main propellants. Hydrogen peroxide monopropellant for pumps, liquid oxygen and kerosene for main propellants.

This is V-2 heritage. Back then the turbine materials were not developed yet that could take the high heat.

3D printing them in 24 hours is impressive. I've had some toys barely bigger than my arm that take longer than that to print.

Obviously these rocket engines are using a totally different technology, but it's still really impressive that they are able to build them so quickly.

My favorite thing about Rocket Lab is the rocket engine they use[1]. By replacing the turbopump with a electric motor they were able to remove one of the single most complicated and expensive parts of a rocket engine. As battery densities keep increasing we should see electrically fed engines being used on bigger and bigger rockets.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rutherford_(rocket_engine)

Electric turbopumps are an answer to the question: "how small can you make a commercially viable orbital rocket?"

Atmospheric drag effects rocket performance less and less the larger a rocket gets (square-cube law), so that a rocket like the Space Shuttle can effectively ignore the atmosphere. Conversely, the smaller a rocket gets, the harder and harder launch gets. This is the problem Rocket Lab has decided to attack.

A decade ago, SpaceX launched the very similar Falcon 1. Falcon 1 was designed a decade ago, and you can see a large amount of the tech advancements in the last decade in Rocket Lab's design:

1. Cheap, lightweight Lithium Polymer (LiPo) batteries.

2. Cheap and performant brushless motor controllers.

3. Additive manufacturing for cheaply making complex parts without significant labor costs.

4. Advances in composites to enable the first orbital-class composite-bodied rocket.

Without any one of these advances, Rocket Lab would not be viable. It still may end up not being viable. Rocket Lab can never compete on bulk orbital cargo pricing. However, Rocket Lab's vision of applying recent tech advancements to bring down the smallest possible launcher size is extremely commendable.

Without any one of these advances, Rocket Lab would not be viable. It still may end up not being viable. Rocket Lab can never compete on bulk orbital cargo pricing. However, Rocket Lab's vision of applying recent tech advancements to bring down the smallest possible launcher size is extremely commendable.

Without a number of advances, the iPad and iPhone wouldn't have been viable. (As evidenced by the appearance of tablets and smartphones many years before.) Tablets can't compete with larger form factors on bulk pricing of computation. However, there is a technology inflection point where smaller and more flexible becomes usable enough. I guess that's what RocketLab is aiming for.

> Rocket Lab can never compete on bulk orbital cargo pricing.

Rocketlab business model is to compete with SpaceX on scheduling and orbits for small satellites. Not on price per Kg to orbit. That fits in with the trend to make satellites smaller.

A variation of a couple of degrees during launch would rip the Shuttle's wings off, so "ignore" is not the right word here.

True, but a quick look at the Space Shuttle launch configuration shows that aerodynamics, while not totally irrelevant, were _not_ the dominant concern.

Don't forget the complete lack of a launch escape system...

As I recall, it remains the case that rocket engines get worse performance with an electric fuel pump.

Electric has two issues. First of all, the energy density (after controlling for efficiency of electric motors / turbo pumps) is lower than that of rocket fuel. Second of all, an empty battery weighs as much as a full one, whereas used fuel no longer weighs down the rocket.

They disconnect and dump the battery mid-flight on ascent to not carry the mass of the empty battery, which might be counted as half a stage in rocket terminology (like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SM-65_Atlas)

See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPwMuUxSrcA&t=1625

Super interesting! I wonder if there is an orbital limit to this technology. From what I remember, Rocket labs is mainly focusing on low orbital launches. As great as batteries are, they are no where near the energy density of the propellants out there. Though the advancement of electrical pumps for rockets is super exciting!

I saw a paper that examined pressure fed, turbo pumps, and electric. Electric beats both pressure fed and turbo pumps at the size Rocket Lab is targeting. At large sizes turbines beat electric but the plumbing is much more complex and technically challenging.

I'm suspicious that electrics are viable for first stages where performance advantage is less important. For first stages the cost is linear with ISP. Where it's exponential for second and third stages. (X^2 and X^3!!) For instance the Protons's first stage specific impulse is 285, Electron rockets specific impulse is 303. That's totally comparable.

I would love to read that paper if you can find it!

Does metal 3D printing mitigate any of these challenges? Or is the problem a packaging problem where there is a minimum size required for the mechanical parts?

This is the paper I'm drawing most of my blather from. Apparently helpfully linked from the great wiki.


I did some more looking, the linked study says that turbopumps scale better then electric as the burn time increases. Because burning fuel and oxidizer is more weight efficient than batteries. At short burn times that's offset by the increased weight of the turbopump.

Along with my earlier comment, the Proton first stage only burns for 130 seconds. Which puts first stages in the short burn category where eletrics do well. *but never as good as turbo pumps. Which supports the idea that electric systems can compete for large first stages by being simple, cheap, and reliable.

More whack is relanding first stage electric fed rockets. Ala SpaceX.

Super awesome! Thanks! I really wish I learned more about rockets during my graduate studies. Haven't really learned much about them besides supersonic nozzles and the math behind the staged combustion cycle during my ICE class.

Any good websites or books you recommend to learn more about them?

> Does metal 3D printing mitigate any of these challenges?

I remember reading an interview with some NaSA engineers who were reverse engineering the F1 engines used for the Saturn V. He said notable was the amount of welded assemblies vs ones machined using 5 axis mills, and parts created via Powder Metallurgy on modern designs.


Yeh, they also let drop batteries from the 2nd stage to reduce weight.

From http://www.nanosats.eu (Oct 2018 stats)

  Nanosats launched: 966
  CubeSats launched: 878
  Countries with nanosats: 58
  Companies in database: 323
  Forecast: over 3000 nanosats to launch in 6 years
OMG is working on an open SysML reference model for CubeSats, https://www.omg.org/cgi-bin/doc?space/18-09-04.pdf (starts on page 20)

> A SysML compliant and tool-independent CubeSat template model that provides building blocks that can be specialized to support MBSE CubeSat design will lower the cost of development ... start-up and mature satellite development organizations can benefit from ... common model structure and framework to support increased production without jeopardizing successful deployment and operation.

> Many of these organizations are university programs that combine aerospace engineering instruction with fundamental research while developing, launching, and operating a spacecraft. With a planned turnover of most of the engineering staff within a short period of time ... need a common engineering framework and knowledge base that stores the institutional knowledge acquired by previous space missions, so that incoming personnel can quickly contribute

I’m pretty sure “It’s Business Time” refers to a Flight of the Conchords song:


Yup - that's what I assumed when I saw the name and that it's in NZ. It got a pretty good chuckle out of me.


For those asking if there is demand for small rockets that can be sent up often.

"Australian start-up Fleet Space Technologies sent up two satellites ... Fleet has spent all year waiting to hitch rides on rockets from SpaceX and the Indian government ... About six weeks ago, it found out there was room on the Rocket Lab rocket. Typically, it takes months or years to get satellites ready, installed and certified for launch, but in this new era of cheap, fast space, Fleet got its hardware on board in record time."

Good to see Fleet Space launching. They are Adelaide based.

We used to have one of the biggest missile/rocket ranges in the world once. Kistler were thinking of bringing the range back in the 00s but didn't survive. As NZ picks up the baton and charges forward it is good to see we still have a role to play with payloads.

Do these nano satellites turn into some form of space junk, when will the orbit deteriorate / will they burn up?


As long as cubesat launch providers stick to ~500km orbits, they will typically deorbit within a few years (depending on their ballistic coefficient). The ITU guideline is a max lifetime of 25 years. They burn up in the atmosphere on re-entry.

More info here: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-R/space/workshops/2015-prague-sma...

Actually part of the payload for this flight was a technology demonstrator called NABEO, which is a sort of sail meant to more rapidly de-orbit small spacecraft using atmospheric drag.

As launching satellites into space becomes cheaper, I'd imagine we will get increasing issues of satellite collisions and interference. Do we need a regulatory framework to address this?

I understand space is becoming increasingly militarized. I wonder what a war will of shooting at satellites will look like. What would happen if all the satellites were taken out?

There is the Space Liability Convention[1], but it's not a solution, just a 'we promise not to harm the space environment intentionally and be cooperative' kind of thing.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Liability_Convention

The Combined Space Operations Center (part of the US military) tracks space objects (satellites, debris) and their risk of collision (called conjunctions). They send satellite operators conjunction warnings, so that they can take action if need be.

I am approaching my 40's and wonder am I just a bit too old that by the space flight is for the common person I will have missed my chance. I really hope I can make it to space one day.

I’m a little older, I’m banking my hopes on an option in 30 years. Just visited my grandpa yesterday for his 90th birthday, his body is slowing down but his mind is as sharp as ever.

I’m not counting it out just yet.

I'm not convinced that they will allow the elderly to fly anyways. Too many Gs.

Eh, Glenn flew on STS-95 at 77 years old. In ten years I go apeshit on TRT, ride that lightning for 20 years and look like Sylvester Stallone in my mid 70's. I'm not worried about 4g's.

I work in health care and I imaging being elderly living on a space station with lowered gravity to make life a little lighter and easier. Also for the care givers low weight working with patients.

> SpaceX can take far more cargo to space, but Rocket Lab is pitching its nimbleness and low-cost as ways to give new customers access to space and to do so on a more convenient schedule.

Weren't small low-cost launches the original goal of SpaceX? I recall Elon saying there wasn't actually that much demand, which is why they were forced to scale up in the first place. Has the market changed recently for small low-cost launches?

Yes, the smallsat market has grown immensely over the last decade.[0] The propagation of larger CubeSat standards and the advent of rideshare in particular have driven growth. Many companies (Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Vector, Relativity...) are now betting that demand is sufficient to support at least a handful of dedicated smallsat launchers to avoid the hassles & delays that come from rideshare.

[0] http://www.scielo.br/img/revistas/jatm/v9n3//2175-9146-jatm-..., via http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2175...

Fleet.space (a company local to me in Adelaide) had 2 satellites as they payload. They only found out about the launch 6 weeks ago and had to build the satellites in that time.

I can't help but wonder if there are some interesting applications for electrically pumped rocket engines beyond just the small satellite market. For example, could you attach 3 or 4 Electron-derived boosters to an Atlas V first stage and use them to land it like a Falcon 9?

That would be a lot of extra launch weight just to return the first stage, not to mention the danger of having filled boosters on the rocket the whole launch.

They're boosters, they can boost themselves, so it seems like you could make them delta-V neutral.

Atlas V regularly launches with solid fuel boosters which are much larger and more powerful than an Electron, so it seems like there's no fundamental reason it wouldn't work. The economics is a different story, of course.

Atlas V is slated to be replaced by Vulcan sometime in the next few years anyway. Vulcan has a re-use story, but it involves only re-using the engines, not the entire stage. Full stage re-use like Falcon 9 has the same problem as Atlas V, there's no way you could deep throttle the main engines enough to land an empty stage.

It seems unlikely that anybody (most especially ULA who are very conservative) will turn Electrons into bolt-on boosters for an existing stage design. But integrating small electrically pumped rocket engines into a new design might be considered a lot less risky. Especially with SpaceX having fundamentally changed the economics of the heavy launch business.

Very cool, but is there really a future for tiny expendable rockets in a world of big reusable ones?

Yeah, RL are hoping to have weekly cadence. I suspect larger launch vehicles won’t be able to match that kind of regularity or response time for smaller payloads

IMHO it's a slightly different market. Dedicated launch allows you to do things like replenish an existing constellation, or go to weird orbits, because you have a say over where the rocket is going. Also it removes a big coordination overhead, and could be more "on demand".

Then again, a reusable rocket on a regular cadence to sun-synchronous orbit could probably serve the earth-imaging market pretty effectively.

I'm really excited about space flight and wish we could make it to Mars already, build space colonies etc. At the same time I'm also very excited about electric vehicle and hope we can replace all combustion engines with clean, sustainable, electric drives. Of course this goes had in hand with green energy sources. So at times I try to consolidate these views and struggle with it. What's going to be the carbon impact of ordinary people going to space? Or worse what's the carbon impact of following Musk's vision of using BFR for super quick international travel? I can only imagine it to be catastrophic.

Methane based rockets can be carbon neutral if you use air co2 to produce methane( which is possible btw).

Look up JAXAs SS-520-5. 10m height, 0.5m diam, got a cubesat to orbit year ago. Smallest orbital rocket by far.

It made it to orbit, but it was highly eliptical. They put it into an 180 km × 1500 km orbit with 31° inclination. It had a lifetime of about 6 months before re-entering.

Very cool! Are these reusable?


While this is fantastic news on one hand, it is concerning that cheap launches will lead to so much debris in low earth orbit that future generations will find it difficult to orbit without significant risk of micrometeorite strikes.

Rocket Lab is being pretty good about this. Their rocket designs are super low waste compared with older ones. It's one of Peter Beck's pet issues.

Things placed in low earth orbit (where small launchers can put satellites) will de-orbit and burn up in 2-5 years from drag if they have no way to maintain their altitude. This isn't a problem future generations have to worry about. Geostationary orbit is a place where stuff can stay for thousands of years, so space junk build up could be a problem out there.

I wish I could put software in one of those shoebox satellites.

I just had a daydream of Satellites as a Service. "give us a docker image extending our base image, no larger than x MB delta, and we will run it on a chosen satellite for a certain time slice for $y"

I can see that future. Even if purely as a learning tool for students.

Would the satellites have some known set of sensors or something like that? Just trying to figure out what would be the point, other than just the coolness of running code in spaaaaaaaace.

Yes, some common API for access to attitude sensors. Maybe a radio. But honestly the point I envision is that it's cool. And teaches kids/teens that this space stuff isn't that far out of reach.

I just remember growing up thinking that I'm a C student and so all this stuff is to be left to the smart people. And that error in perspective drove my thinking for a long time.

You never really know what will be the spark that helps someone discover their passion. Maybe it's Nyancat Sputnik.

Raspberry Pi In The Sky

Students can design, build, validate and launch their own cubesats through special programmmes.

Even cooler if one of them launches a flying data center. Limited bandwidth would be an issue.

Bandwidth is usually less of a problem than latency.

Check out the AstroPi challenge [1] for a similar idea on the ISS. Including support for multiple sensor and cameras.

[1] https://astro-pi.org/

AFAIK, that's what Satellogic (https://www.satellogic.com) sells. You may want to contact them.

Disclaimer: while I am not directly involved with what they do, I happen to know personally both of the founders and a lot of the people working there.

Considering the cost of storage it's probably cheaper to launch N sensors and just keep a record raw everything. Which is more or less the model of the existing earth-sensing satellite world.

That defeats the whole point by optimizing for the wrong thing.

It’ll take some money, some talking (do you have a local university that builds satellites?), or, most likely, both, but there are ways and means of getting things into orbit.

See, for example:


Our startup is working on way to allow easier software development in space. Stay in touch, and we will get this ability.

in the not very far future it probably will be possible to buy hosting services on a platform that is a xen or kvm hypervisor in low earth orbit.

Hopefully, soon it will be "just another AZ".

How would you name that? space-west-1? Cardinal directions are sort of irrelevant.

No need to do anything complicated. Just name them leo-1, leo-2, ..., and have a page with info about the orbit path for each (visualized, as well as in e.g. keplerian elements)

A formula describing its path across the latitude/longitude graph.

Not saying it's a good idea but you can fit a two line element orbital data field into a hostname or DNS entry.

A true cloud provider

I'm still chuckling that they called the rocket "It's Business Time".

I'm guessing partly a hat tip to SpaceX and the naming of their drone ships, but more so named after a song by the Flight of the Conchords.

For the those wondering why he chuckles, here's the song in question: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGOohBytKTU

Thank you for that! How have I not come across that gem before? :)

Thanks for that, I had a good laugh.

I’m still amazed there are videos of something you’ve never heard of with 35 million views.

I remember Flight of the Conchords was a huge hit in the Bay area in 2007-2009 amongst the hipster-ish and nerdy crowd. We used to torrent it =) along with HyperDrive (British comedy set in space) and the super popular IT Crowds. All great shows.

I think HBO allows you to watch it for free now: https://www.hbo.com/flight-of-the-conchords

Not in New Zealand apparently :(

> I'm still chuckling that they called the rocket "It's Business Time".

A more sensible choice than "The Humans Are Dead"

They should have named it the Conchord

Hopefully this will be just the first of many, and looking forward to what they come up with next time.

Congrats on the launch!

> The rocket dubbed “It’s Business Time” took off just before 5 p.m.

We've advanced to the point of giving jokey pop culture names to space vehicles. And if they wanted to promote New Zealand's prominence in the world, they couldn't have made a better choice.


It's certainly a sign of an advanced civilization, but the practice has been around for a while. The Apollo 10 crafts were "Charlie Brown" and "Snoopy."

Compare the SpaceX barge names, which are taken from Iain M. Banks books:


The culture we have versus the Culture we want?

Those are among my favorite Sci-fi novels. However, I think being the pet of higher powers only works out in fiction.

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