News Article | August 4, 2016
It looks like going to the moon will no longer be a privilege reserved for the government, as Moon Express has become the first private company in the world to receive permission to travel beyond Earth's orbit — a development that came after months of negotiations with government officials. Now, Moon Express, having formally received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), will launch launch its MX-1 lunar lander beyond Earth's orbit and to the moon in 2017. "Moon Express received the green light for pursuing its 2017 lunar mission following in-depth consultations with the FAA, the White House, the State Department, NASA and other federal agencies," the company said [pdf] on its website Wednesday. Moon Express was was born out of the Google Lunar XPrize, an international contest with $30 million up for grabs for a private company that can soft-land on the moon and travel across its surface. One would assume that earning the right to go to the moon would have involved a long, regimented process. However, as past examples have shown, making history often requires using unconventional methods, and this instance was no different. To start, Moon Express didn't begin by asking for approval, it began by purchasing a launch to the moon with Rocket Lab in October 2015. At that time, it didn't have permission from the government to go to the moon or the ability to retain ownership of any lunar resources they obtained if it could get there. However, its situation changed somewhat in the following month, November 2015, when the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act was passed, allowing private companies to have full ownership of resources they extract in space. The bill made it legal for Moon Express to mine the moon and keep what it extracted, but it still didn't have permission to travel to the moon in the first place. From a regulatory standpoint, things were all set, but things were still murky from a security standpoint. Why? Because national assets like reconnaissance satellites that monitor specific areas of the Earth are located over 20,000 miles away in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). At the time, that was the farthest private companies could place anything past Earth, and going beyond that point would give a company full view of some of the most important space-based security satellites. As a result, it's in the government's best interest to know exactly what a company intends to do on a mission past GEO. Of course, since this would be the first time a private company would fly past Earth's orbit, there was no set procedure in place in granting a company the right to do so. As such, representatives from multiple federal agencies, including the State Department and the NSA, came together and determined that the FAA, which is already responsible for granting launch licenses to rocket companies, would be the best point of contact. Heeding their advice, Moon Express did just that and submitted an application for a 2017 commercial lunar mission to the FAA on April 8, 2016, which has now been approved. "The FAA has determined that the launch of the payload does not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States," the FAA said in a statement Wednesday. "As long as none of the information provided to the FAA changes in a material manner and the FAA does not become aware of any issues the review did not consider that could affect the determination, the FAA considers this determination final." Indeed, this will mark the first time that a private company has conducted a lunar mission. If successful, it will become the fourth entity overall to soft-land on the moon. The first three to hold this distinction were all global superpowers: the U.S., the former USSR and China. However, what this doesn't mean is that other private companies will automatically be granted access to the moon. Naveen Jain, co-founder of Moon Express, was quick to note that this permission was a onetime deal for the company. All future requests for lunar travel will be addressed on a case-by-case basis until laws governing this activity can be passed. At the very least, however, all companies that might seek approval in the future will know which entity to contact for permission and what steps need to be taken while doing so. "This simply shows that every company can achieve their moon-shot," said Jain. Whereas other companies still need to submit their plans to the FAA before getting their hopes off the ground, Moon Express is free to move forward. For starters, Moon Express hopes to win further XPrize awards by moving across the surface. Rather than simply roving, it will re-fire its rockets on the MX-1 lander and "hop" to different locations. In the future, the company expects to boost revenue by harvesting resources on the moon, like water and Helium-3, creating a fuel depot on the surface and ultimately performing round-trip missions to ferry payloads back to the Earth. By the end of the year, Moon Express plans to double its employee base to over 50 people. Moon Express will conduct its mission in the latter half of 2017 on a rocket provided by Rocket Lab. Jain stated the mission will be profitable due to private payloads and sponsorships. NASA is expected to participate as well by providing a paid scientific payload, though Moon Express' business plan is not dependent on it. © 2016 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | November 3, 2015
AUCKLAND, New Zealand: The next revolution in space, making humdrum what was long the special preserve of tax-funded giants like NASA, will be launching next year from a paddock in New Zealand’s remote South Island. The rocket launch range is not just New Zealand's first of any kind, but also the world's first private launch range, and the rocket, designed by Rocket Lab, one of a growing number of businesses aiming to slash the cost of getting into space, will be powered by a 3D-printed rocket engine - another first. The 16-metre carbon-cased rocket being assembled in a small hangar near Auckland Airport will weigh just 1,190 kilogrammes, and with fuel and payload will be only about a third the weight of SpaceX's Falcon 1, the first privately developed launch vehicle to go into orbit back in 2008. The remote launch site is no accident. "One advantage of New Zealand being this little island nation in the middle of nowhere is that's the perfect place to launch a rocket," said Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck. Ships and planes need re-routing every time a rocket is launched, which limits opportunities in crowded U.S. skies, but New Zealand, a country of 4 million people in the South Pacific, has only Antarctica to its south. Rocket Lab, part funded by Lockheed Martin Corp, is aiming for up to one launch a week from around 2018, costing just under US$5 million each, a tenth of typical launch prices now, and vastly increasing business access to space. Even NASA, struggling to shift its launch backlog, this month awarded Rocket Lab and rivals Firefly Space Systems and Virgin Galactic contracts totalling US$17.1 million to launch tiny satellites into orbit from 2017. Rocket Lab recently signed a deal with Silicon Valley-based Moon Express to send a rocket to the moon in 2017 in a bid to win Google's US$20 million Lunar X prize for the first company to send a probe that broadcasts images from the moon. Moon Express has already contracted for five launches with Rocket Lab and plans to send robotic spacecraft continually to the moon for exploration and commercial development of natural resources such as platinum. Its CEO Bob Richards accepts there will be glitches and a steep learning curve, but believes companies like Moon Express are making the future as the low-cost launch brings to businesses what used to require the resources of a superpower. “The emergence of commercial space today will have the same impact as the emergence of commercial aviation did in the early 1900s," he said. The bread and butter of new launch companies will be the burgeoning small satellite industry, as players such as Google, Virgin and Samsung plan satellite constellations to carry communications infrastructure and gather data from low-earth orbit. “We’re not about building a rocket; we’re about enabling the small satellite revolution,” said Rocket Lab’s Beck. Three separate internet broadband ventures to provide low-cost internet from the top of the Himalayas to the middle of the Sahara desert are being planned by One Web, Samsung and SpaceX, with support from Google. These alone will require 6,000 new satellites in the next four years, Rocket Lab predicts. The Satellite Industry Association says just over 200 satellites were launched in 2014, nearly double the previous year. Not everyone believes there will be enough demand to support the growing number of launch companies. “The market can’t sustain that many; there’s going to be a thinning out of the herd,” said Daniel Lim, vice president of disruptive innovations at space services provider TriSept Corporation. Others say launch cost is still too high at around US$5 million, when for US$40,000 companies can rideshare on a larger rocket to launch a nano-satellite, if they can tolerate long waiting lists and don't need control over timing or trajectory. But space startups have been proving popular with investors. “Investor dollars are increasing their flow,” said Sean Casey, head of Silicon Valley Space Center, a business accelerator for space startups. “Venture capitalists are looking for a return on investment and the possibilities of disruptive technologies.” The largest 100 new space companies received more than US$2 billion investment in 2015, around four times more than in 2009, according to data from New Space Global. That is still dwarfed by NASA's US$17.6 billion budget last year, but many say small companies offer options and a risk appetite that government agencies cannot. Sandy Tirtey, a hypersonic engineer who leads the vehicle team at Rocket Lab, used to work for the European Space Agency, but lost patience with the red tape required to make small design changes. “I had enough of all these processes,” he said. “We’re not spending all day feeding paper work, we’re spending all day solving problems,” he said.
News Article | April 14, 2015
An upstart New Zealand rocket company says it has found a way to drastically cut the cost of satellite launches: 3-D printing rocket components. The Rocket Lab’s new Rutherford engine, formally announced on April 14 at Colorado’s Space Symposium, is built out of carbon-based materials instead of metals, and will allow satellites to be launched for $5 million a pop—less than 1/40th the price of the average rocket launch. Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, told Fast Company that the Rutherford engines are made from titanium and super alloys using additive manufacturing (better known to the rest of us as 3-D printing) over the course of three days. He added that a conventional rocket engine takes a month to manufacture, and that his company’s goal is to eventually launch one satellite into orbit each week. The small Rutherford engines are fueled by liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene and generate 13.3 kilonewtons of thrust at liftoff. Beck added that building the engines’ turbopumps, small soda can-size components that each generate the horsepower of a car, was one of the company’s biggest logistical issues. Admittedly, New Zealand is an odd place for a space firm to be located. But although Rocket Lab is now based in the United States, Beck says his native country is perfect for rocket launches. "We're trying to achieve a very high flight rate at an affordable price. As a small island nation in the Pacific, there’s nothing around us. We can achieve a wide variety of things and not impact commercial aircraft or shipping—things that in the U.S. are much harder. We're serious about this once-a-week launch rate," he added. Although Beck might be serious about his company’s weekly satellite launches, the real question is how feasible Rocket Lab’s model is. They are among the best-known contenders in a growing field of companies launching the pint-size satellites known as "smallsats" and "nanosats" into orbit. While the vanguard of space exploration is shifting from governmental space agencies to private companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Planetary Ventures, investors are hoping the smallsat field will generate returns. Rocket Lab has received funding from Silicon Valley venture firms Bessemer Venture Partners and Khosla Ventures, along with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and New Zealand-based fund K1W1.
News Article | April 15, 2015
The cost of getting into space is -- pardon the pun -- astronomical, but New Zealand-based startup Rocket Lab believes it will be able to reduce average launch costs by 95 percent. This is down to its lightweight satellite launcher, Electron -- and, partially, Electron's Rutherford engine, newly unveiled at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado, USA. According to the company, it has been able to reduce the amount of liquid fuel used -- and is able to get a satellite into orbit around the Earth using the same amount of fuel it takes a jet-liner to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco. This is thanks to the 4,600lbf engine's system of turbopumps, which inject the propellant into the engine. While the engine still uses liquid rocket fuel as a propellant -- liquid oxygen and refined kerosene -- its turbopumps are powered differently. Usually, turbopumps are driven by a turbine powered by fuel, such as liquid oxygen or gaseous hydrogen -- but Rutherford's turbopumps are driven by brushless DC electric motors powered by lithium-polymer batteries. Moreover, the company said, Rutherford is the first LOX-RP-1 engine to use 3D printing for all its primary components -- including the regeneratively cooled thrust chamber, the injector, the pumps and the main propellant valves. These can all be printed from titanium alloys within around three days using a 3D printing technique called electron beam melting; traditionally, manufacturing the parts would take months. This engine would then power both stages of the rocket -- nine Rutherfords in its tail end, and one in its nose. This helps optimise the Electron rocket for fast production -- which will be necessary with launches as often as once a week, especially if, as Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told Via Satellite in October 2014, the Electron rockets will not be reused. "We did the trades and there is a lot of added mass and complexity to reusable systems. When your booster is worth $20 or $30 million, then to have the infrastructure required to retrieve, service and refurbish it makes sense. But when your booster is worth single-digit millions or less, the cost equation doesn't close. It's more cost effective to not reuse," he said. Each launch is expected to cost around $4.9 million. According to Lockheed-Boeing, the average cost of a space rocket launch is around $225 million. "Historically, the time and expense to launch small satellites have been prohibitive, costing many millions of dollars and requiring endless patience and flexibility waiting for months to 'hitch a ride' to space," said Beck. "With Electron, companies can launch whenever they would like, at a substantially more affordable cost. This monumental advancement in space technology gives satellite-reliant businesses the freedom they have been waiting for, which will lead to vast improvements in how we use satellite technology in space." Rocket Lab's commercial low-Earth orbit operations are scheduled to commence in 2016.
News Article | September 5, 2016
You’re a billionaire space company owner, and you want to take the next big step and send a spacecraft to the moon. You’ve built the rocket and bought time on a launch pad and established your mission goals. What’s left before lift off? SpaceX, Blue Origin and, more recently, Moon Express have been garnering attention this year for endeavors to send spacecrafts into Earth’s orbit and the moon. But getting these missions off the ground takes more permits and licenses than most people realize. If you want to leave the atmosphere, you have to get the government’s blessing first. Back in 1967, in the space race heyday, the world’s major powers met and hammered out some essential rules. But it wasn’t just for the sake of adding red tape—They also wanted to avoid world destruction. It was a tricky time. The U.S. and USSR were embattled in the Cold War, and both sides (and most other world leaders) were worried someone would get the bright idea to put nuclear weapons in orbit. The Outer Space Treaty—full name: Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies—was established. It concluded that regulation and oversight would be in the hands of each individual country for their specific government’s missions and private launches, said Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, director of the International Institute of Space Law. “The Outer Space Treaty is the most important space treaty there is,” she told Motherboard in an email. “It functions like a Constitution for space and contains the fundamental principles—like prohibiting nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in space—by which nations have agreed to be governed.” Non-governmental agencies in the U.S. (a.k.a. anything that isn’t NASA) have to go through a rigorous licensing Federal Aviation Administration process. The FAA handles everything related to U.S. flight—from tiny bush planes to hot air balloons to the plane you flew on to get home for Christmas—and commercial space flight. It’s such a big deal that the FAA has a specific office dedicated to regulating commercial space flight. The agency checks out the company’s payload, its environmental impact, checks for national security and foreign policy concerns and makes sure the mission’s insurance is up to par, FAA spokesman Hank Price said. Silicon Valley-based company Moon Express was recently granted a “positive payload determination” by the FAA that essentially says the items they plan to send to the moon do not “jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States,” he said, adding that it isn’t a license to lift off just yet. The New Shepard booster in 2015. Image: Blue Origin Even that pre-license process took three months, and required an extensive review process with the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Defense and other agencies, he said. The company’s next step will be to apply for a launch license. In the meantime, they’ve established a launch agreement—think of it like a rocket rental contract—with Rocket Lab, a company that launches other companies' satellites into orbit. Moon Express is already stating that it will launch in 2017 (which they’ll have to do if they’re going to win Google’s Lunar XPRIZE for $20 million that will go to whichever company can land on the moon by the end of 2017). This may seem like a buzzkill compared to the way Moon Express explains it—“Moon Express has become the first private company approved to literally go out of this world,” they state on their website. But it is historic since this is the first payload approval made for a commercial mission set for the moon, and it’s the first time a company has signed a contract for a lunar mission. One small step for this launch, but one big leap for the future of business on the moon. Once a company has the FAA launch license, FAA’s approval of its payload, an agreement with a launch company and an agreement with a private launch site or a government launch site, it still needs the right insurance. Price said companies are required to get insurance that covers the cost of the rocket and any satellites or other items it’s carrying, but not the launchpad itself. The insurance comes in hand if the rocket blows up, as demonstrated by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 explosion that destroyed the rocket and a satellite last week that was intended to extend internet access into parts of Africa as part of Facebook’s Internet.org project. Policies for millions of dollars are issued by companies like XL Catlin and Marsh for the various stages of a mission, like launch, separation and in-orbit insurance. Moon Express and companies like it state that they want to lay the groundwork for moon colonization. And organizations like Mars One want to establish human colonies on the red planet. These efforts will require a lot of work in labs, but they’ll also require just as much work in boardrooms and courtrooms to figure out just how much red tape is necessary to keep those who want to go to the Great Beyond in check.