Small satellite launch company Rocket Lab says it’s looking to expand its spaceflight operations by creating a new launch pad in the United States. This new site will be the second one for the US-based startup, which already launches its rockets from a private pad in New Zealand.
Rocket Lab hasn’t picked a location for the second launch site yet, but has narrowed it down to four places, all at government-run launch facilities. These include the US’s two most prolific spaceports, Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The other two sites include Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, as well as the Pacific Spaceport Complex in southern Alaska. Rocket Lab says a final decision will be made in 2018. First, the company needs to work through all the necessary regulatory hurdles and costs, as well as figure out how long construction will take. A new pad will be built specifically for Rocket Lab’s primary vehicle, the Electron.
The new site will be dubbed Launch Complex 2 — an appropriate title given that the New Zealand pad is called Launch Complex 1. The first launch from the facility is slated to occur in the first half of 2019, and Rocket Lab says the site will be able to support launches at least once a month. The company has been very clear that it wants to launch its rockets as frequently as possible, eventually sending up a vehicle every three days. This second site could help Rocket Lab better achieve that goal by allowing for more frequent flights to space. “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,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement.
Rocket Lab’s Electron is a relatively small rocket that stands at just 55 feet tall, about the size of a five-story building. Its sole purpose is to be a dedicated ride for small satellites, as the rocket can only carry payloads between 330 and 500 pounds into low Earth orbit. It’s a light load compared to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, for instance, which can get around 50,000 pounds of cargo into the same orbit.
So far, the company has conducted two test launches of the Electron. Both times, the rocket made it to space, though the second flight was the only one to achieve orbit. Now, Rocket Lab is in the middle of transitioning to full commercial operations, which is proving somewhat tricky. The company has tried twice to launch its first commercial flight, which will carry five small satellites to orbit for four different customers. However, both of those attempts had to be postponed as Rocket Lab identified some strange behavior with one of the Electron’s motors. The company is working to fix the issue but has not announced a new date for the mission.