Rocket Lab: Carbon Fiber Rockets Powered by 3D Printing
We recently wrote about Richard Branson’s OneWeb, a company dedicated to providing everyone in the world with access to the internet via a “satellite constellation”. The story gets even more exciting when Elon Musk throws his hat into the ring with intentions of creating an even more sophisticated “satellite constellation” with his company SpaceX. While both these companies dominate the headlines with their attention grabbing announcements, other companies with equally fascinating ambitions fly under the radar undetected. One such company is Rocket Lab.
Founded in 2006, Los Angeles based Rocket Lab operates out of a subsidiary in New Zealand where they are building the world’s first commercial launch pad. The Company has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding from Khosla Ventures, Lockheed Martin, and Bessemer Venture Partners. Rocket Lab’s focus is on high-frequency, low-cost launches. According to Rocket Lab, the current market for launches is not capable of meeting demand. Lead-times for satellite launches have wait lists in years, and small satellite companies cannot reach orbit in timeframes that keep their businesses competitive.
Rocket Lab’s competitive advantage is their rocket itself which is 91% cheaper to launch than current methods. Designed from an all-carbon composite, their Electron rocket has a dry mass equal to less than a Mini Cooper. It is roughly around 4 feet in diameter and 52 feet tall. This rocket can deliver a 330 lb payload of CubeSats into space. CubeSats are small satellites with a volume of .26 gallons and a weight not to exceed 2.93 lbs. To power these light craft, Rocket Lab has developed the Rutherford engine for use in their rockets, the world’s first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use 3D printing for all primary components. Printed from titanium alloys, these components take around three days to build using an electron beam melting 3D printer. Using high performance Lithium Polymer batteries to drive its turbo-pumps, these engines can deploy a satellite to a commercial orbit using less fuel than a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Since their inception, Rocket Lab has developed and launched more than 80 rockets. They recently signed an agreement with NASA which allows them to use NASA resources such as personnel, facilities and equipment for launch efforts. You can book spaces on Rocket Lab’s coming launches through their website with just a few mouse clicks. Cargo slots are available from Q3 2016 onward as seen below:
In the below example, you can see where we have selected one of the two remaining 3U size storage containers on a Q2 2017 launch for a total cost of $250,000 USD:
Ignoring the fact that future bookings command a small discount, when this flight departs it will generate $6.64 million in revenues at a cost of $4.9 million. With Rocket Lab on a trajectory to provide at least 100 launches per year, this translates into potential revenues of $640 million per year. The Company expects their first commercial launch this year with the first 30 rocket payloads being fully booked. Online bookings extend out over the next four years and some launches as far out as 2019 are already fully booked.
Rocket Lab is being secretive about the amount of funding they have taken in so far so it’s hard to say if or when they’ll need to raise more. With a 91% reduction in rocket launch costs, it’s safe to say they won’t need nearly as much funding as SpaceX or Oneweb. An IPO from any three of these space companies could provide some great publicity to let the world know about their grand ambitions.