New Zealand's rocket launch hailed as a 'huge milestone' for local space tech

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket launching from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. (Source: Rocket Lab)

A sleepy area of New Zealand was rocked by an unusual sight on Thursday – a rocket taking off into space.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 at Mahia Peninsula on the north island of New Zealand, in an event described as the world’s first “orbital-class” rocket launch from a private site.

Later in the evening it was confirmed to have successfully travelled into space.

“We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. We’ve worked tirelessly to get to this point,” said Rocket Lab founder and chief Peter Beck.

“It has been an incredible day and I’m immensely proud of our talented team.”

Beck added that all the development took place in-house with “a small team”, including building the world’s first private launch facility on the east coast of New Zealand.

Flavia Tata Nardini, co-founder and chief of Adelaide nanosatellite startup Fleet, said the event was a huge milestone for the space industry in Australia and New Zealand.

“Launching a rocket is an incredible undertaking — that’s why so few currently launch successfully. Rocket Labs demonstrated the might of southern hemisphere innovation with absolute tenacity, determination and brilliance,” she said.

Although Electron reached space, it didn’t make it into orbit after successful lift-off and flight.

“We had a great first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing separation. We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why,” said Beck.

“However, reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our programme, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business.”

Fleet, which saw Blackbird Ventures invest $5 million in the company in April, is aiming to put 100 nanosatellites into space to facilitate a “new industrial revolution” based on internet of things.

“We need projects like Electron to make this goal a reality,” said Tata Nardini.

“While we have the option to partner with brands from across the globe, locally led innovation goes a long way in inspiring and pushing forward the sector.”

She sees Electron’s launch as proof that private companies can viably compete in the space tech industry, saying there’s now “a shift in approach to how we develop and commercialise space technology”, by combining “lean manufacturing” and an agile startup attitude.

Rocket Lab stated that in the coming weeks its engineers in the USA and New Zealand would sort through the 25,000 data channels from the Electron flight to optimise it for future missions.

“The applications doing this will open up are endless… improved weather reporting, internet from space, natural disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data as well as search and rescue services,” Beck said.

Two more test flights are planned for this year, with putting the Electron into orbit the aim for the next flight. Once in production, Rocket Lab stated it “expects to launch more than 50 times a year”, and is already has regulatory permission to lift-off up to 120 times a year.

As a comparison, 2016 saw 22 launches in the United States and 82 in total around the world.

Rocket Lab, established in 2006, already boasts big-name customers including NASA, Spire, Planet, Moon Express and Spaceflight. It has been backed by Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Data Collective, Promus Ventures, Lockheed Martin and K1W1.

NOW WATCH: Tech Insider videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.