The biggest opportunity in space travel may be in the smallest end of the market.
With its seventh successful rocket launch into low-Earth orbit last week, Rocket Lab — which is billing itself as the “turnkey solution for complete small-satellite missions” — is well on its way to capturing the small spacecraft market. The “Make It Rain” mission launched from New Zealand included seven satellites on board for several clients — including the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Melbourne Space Program in Australia — through an arrangement brokered on behalf of Rocket Lab by Spaceflight.
Huntington, California-based, Rocket Lab has raised more than $288 million in private funding and is valued at over $1 billion. It’s a serious contender to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the only other private company to have successfully launched rockets into space.
Propelling Rocket Lab’s growth is backing from Lockheed Martin, which became a strategic investor four years ago.
- Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in an interview that 2,500 spacecraft will launch in the next few years and that the small spacecraft market is growing 200% annually. He is betting that the company that gets satellites up the fastest, cheapest and most efficiently will win the private space race.
- Rocket Lab’s niche is small rockets to carry even smaller satellites. Its Electron rocket is just 16 meters long, compared to SpaceX’s 70-meter Falcon 9, and it can launch into lower-Earth orbit at a fraction of the payload and cost. The tiny rocket can hold up to 32 small “CubeSat” satellites, making it more efficient to get satellites into space.
- Rocket’s biggest challenge seems to be growing fast enough. By year’s end it plans to open a facility in Virginia, in addition to the one in California that is trying to triple its production of Electron rockets. The company is also hiring 100 additional people in New Zealand, where it has doubled its staff in the last year to a team of over 500.
- Karma Takeaway: As space exploration continues to shift from governments to private companies, Rocket Lab’s demonstrated success has it well-poised to be the choice for small spacecraft heading to lower-Earth orbit.