Rocket Lab Launches Power New Zealand’s Space Sector While Australia Lags

Written by staff writer.

Rocket Lab conducted its seventh successful launch this year from its launch pad complex on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula on July 18.  The company’s 18-metre tall Electron rocket carried a commercial payload of seven small satellites for customers, including Telsat, Spire Global, and NASA.

Rocket Lab’s 39th launch so far (including one suborbital launch last month) was also the fourth this year in New Zealand, with the other launches using the company’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island in Virginia.

In contrast, across the Tasman, the only launches of note in recent times were Equatorial Launch Australia’s three rockets sent into space last winter from the Arnhem Space Port.  Since then, Australia’s launch calendar has remained dormant.

Rocket Lab’s ongoing series of launches from the North Island keeps that country’s small space sector in the spotlight while the Australian space sector fights for interest and funding, particularly at a federal government level.

In addition to deploying satellites into orbit for its customers, Rocket Lab used this week’s mission to advance the reusability capabilities of the Electron rocket, potentially making it a viable competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

After separation, Electron’s first stage booster parachuted into the ocean off the North Island, with Rocket Lab successfully retrieving it.  The company has done such retrievals before but is working on making the booster more water-resistant, particularly some key engine and avionics components.  Unlike Falcon 9 rockets, the Electron rockets don’t have enough fuel to make a controlled return to a hard landing site.  Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said their 39th launch was a success.  “We’ve made big strides towards reusability with Electron, and we are now closer than ever to relaunching booster for the first time,” he said.

According to the New Zealand Space Agency (NZSA), the space sector’s direct and indirect economic benefits are now generating almost NZD2 billion a year for the country.  NZSA boss Iain Cossar was one of many who congratulated Rocket Lab on their latest launch.

New Zealand’s success in nurturing homegrown space companies like Rocket Lab, which is now California-based and listed on the NASDAQ, comes despite the New Zealand government spending minimal amounts on the sector, but instead openly accommodating the commercial space sector and facilitating its development and growth.

In comparison, the Australian government not only spends little on space, it is demonstrating a disinterest in the sector.  The most recent significant government intervention in the space sector was cancelling the National Space Mission for Earth Observation (NSMEO) project, which would have given Australia some much-needed sovereign satellite capabilities.  Science Minister Ed Husic said the government had other priorities.

The current Australian government has also recently axed the Australian Spaceports program, the Australian Technology into Orbit program, and a program associated with the Moon to Mars project.  Nonetheless, Husic maintains the Australian government “values the role the space sector plays.”

Meanwhile, Rocket Lab has another ten launches planned for the remainder of the year, all from the New Zealand launch pad, deploying around 20 satellites for a range of customers and participating in debris removal trials, further enhancing the capabilities of the New Zealand space sector.


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