Notional image of the UK’s first commercial spaceport at the Sutherland Site in Melness, Scotland, which will conduct the UK’s first vertical, orbital rocket launch in the early 2020s. (Source: PRNewsfoto/Lockheed Martin)

Rocket Lab looks for U.S. launch site, could fly out of new U.K. location

Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab is looking to open a second launch site in the U.S. to complement its New Zealand facility, with four sites under consideration.  The company’s rocket may also fly from the U.K.’s newly announced launch site in northern Scotland, according to Space News.  Rocket Lab plans to launch its $4.9 million carbon composite expendable rocket over a hundred times per year in the future.

A decision on Rocket Lab’s second site, to be named Launch Complex 2, is expected to be made in August 2018, with Cape Canaveral, Wallops Flight Facility, Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base under consideration.   Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 is located in New Zealand and has logged two successful Electron launches, with a third scheduled in the near future.

“The development of Rocket Lab’s U.S. launch site strengthens our existing position as the industry leader providing frequent and tailored access to orbit for small satellites. Launching from US soil adds an extra layer of flexibility for our government and commercial customers, offering an unmatched ability to rapidly deploy space-based assets with confidence and precision,” said Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck in a press release. “We believe the launch process should be simple, seamless and tailored to our customers’ missions – from idea to orbit. Every aspect of the Electron orbital launch program is designed with this in mind and Launch Complex 2 is the next step in this strategy.”

Rocket Lab has previously discussed adding multiple launch sites around the globe to provide rapid, flexible and cost-effective access to orbit for small satellites.  The four potential U.S. launch sites are being evaluated with a series of criteria, including anticipated pad construction cost and time-frame, regulatory lead times and ongoing costs once the site is operational.

Launch Complex 2 will be designed to support monthly orbital launches, states Rocket lab. Once a final U.S. site is confirmed, construction will begin immediately, with the first mission from Launch Complex 2 slated for Q2 2019. Rocket Lab will construct its own pad infrastructure tailored to the Electron launch vehicle.

Out of the four sites, Space IT Bridge believes Vandenberg Air Force Base is the likely front-runner due to the ability to provide sun-synchronous orbits and its proximity to the company’s LA headquarters.  The company’s Electron launch vehicle is currently built in New Zealand, which means new rockets could be either shipped by boat to California and/or a new production facility could be built in the U.S. in the future, depending on launch rates and requirements by U.S. government customers.   Alaska is likely to be lower on the list, due to distance and added cost — anywhere from $2 to $4 million, per launch.  Weather may also play a role in Alaska site usage.

Cost and range scheduling is also likely to affect consideration at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX, the biggest commercial customer using the Cape, has often complained about range charges when it flies the larger Falcon 9 from there and the adjacent Pad 39A from Kennedy Space Center.  Between SpaceX’s growing launch manifest and booked ULA Launch traffic, Rocket Lab would have to work around launches from a number of established customers.

Wallops Flight Facility may be the dark horse in the race.  Northrop Grumman (formerly OrbitalATK) launches commercial supply missions to the International Space Station twice a year from Wallops, with an occasional Minotaur solid rocket launch for the U.S. Air Force every couple of years.  NASA also regularly launches sounding rockets at Wallops, but the total volume and rate of activity isn’t likely to be a barrier for Rocket Lab. The drawback to Wallops is it cannot offer access to more desirable polar and sun-synchronous orbits and may be less usable during the winter months unless “We can launch below 32F” is an Electron rocket feature.

Across the Atlantic, the U.K. government announced has selected a site on the north coast of Scotland to build a small satellite launch site.   Space access is considered a strategic economic and natural security priority for the U.K. and a complementary component to the nation’s thriving aerospace industry.

The U.K. Space Agency has awarded $30 million to Lockheed Martin and $7 million to Orbex to build facilities and start up launch operations at Sunderland, Scotland, reports Space News.  The Rocket Lab Electron is rumored to be the baseline vehicle for Lockheed Martin launch operations with a Small Launch Maneuvering Vehicle (SM-OMV) upper built by Moog to go on top. The announced SL-OMV will carry up to six 6U CubeSats into space and distribute them into the proper orbits.

As a part of the U.K. Space Agency grant, Lockheed Martin will work with Orbital Micro Systems (OMS) to build and fly a 6U CubeSat pathfinder satellite to validate performance of SL-OMV and ground systems.  The pathfinder fits into OMS plans to build a constellation of satellites to collect low latency weather data for commercial and government customers.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *