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Rocket Lab and the Atea - NZ's first commercial rocket

For the person who has everything: golf balls from space

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Photograph by Bruce Nicholson

What to get the person who has everything: perhaps a golf ball from space?

Believe it or not, there is a market for items that have been especially launched into the cosmos with those items commanding premium prices once they’re safely back on terra firma. Kiwi company Rocket Lab has just signed a contract that allows it to send a payload into space in its custom-built Atea rocket and bring it back to Earth, making the Atea the first commercial rocket in New Zealand.

Founder Peter Beck says the rocket will allow everyday Kiwis to send items into space for an affordable price. The cost per kilo is around US$15,000 but, like New Zealand Post, the size and weight matters. For the big guns, the rocket can be used commercially, custom-built and branded to take your products suborbital.

While the market may seem relatively small here in New Zealand, Rocket Lab has a consultant at work in the UAE pitching the commercial possibilities to Arab sheikhs, which include flying to New Zealand to launch the rocket themselves or watching the launch live on the Internet. But, not surprisingly, Rocket Lab’s first major contract has come from the home of the moonwalker, the US. Memorial spaceflight company Celestis has signed an ongoing project to take human ashes into space. “To have a contract for a commercial payload before the rocket is even completed is very unusual,” says Beck.

The rocket is unique due to its custom design. Beck found it difficult to source parts as most private rockets are crafted from ex-military missiles, making them expensive and difficult to import. “It’s often said to build a rocket is quite simple: you can just buy hardware and off you go,” says Beck. “That’s a source of frustration, because it’s not the case. Everything is integrated, and it’s expensive.” Recently Rocket Lab received a quote to buy a parachute for the rocket, only to find the cost exceeded its entire budget. So it turned in-house, creating new modifications with the help of a $99,000 government grant.

The Atea burns a hybrid mixture of solid and liquid fuel, another Rocket Lab invention. The hybrid fuel is safer than conventional solid fuel, which can’t be switched off once combustion begins. It’s also cleaner-burning, producing about the same emissions per flight as running a car for three days.

The high-temperature Hi-Tac ablative coating and Hi-Noz—High Temperature Rocket Nozzle Bulk Moulding Compound—could be used in the metals industry. “The commercial possibilities are potentially very large,” says Beck of the spinoffs, which are in the process of being protected by patent specialists AJ Park.

The Atea’s maiden launch is planned for early 2009.

Inside: The ‘brains’ of the rocket: avionics, sensors, GPS and gyroscopesNose cone: In flight, can reach up to 800 degrees Celsius. Most rockets have a steel cone, but Rocket Lab developed a glass fibre composite cone that’s lighter and allows GPS systems to be housed in the tipSolid fuel first stage: The rocket weighs 250 kilograms with fuel, and 80 kilograms when dryOutside: Sprayed with a high-temperature ablative coating, which absorbs heat to protect the rocketRecovery system A parachute made from a special durable fabric slows down the rocket on re-entry to Earth. “The chute deployment represents a significant challenge,” says Beck. “The rocket is travelling at over the speed of sound, and then chucks out a piece of fabric. The air resistance alone could ignite the chute”Payload: A cavity to store scientific instruments or commercial productsComposite nozzle: The business end of the rocket. It turns the combustion gases into thrustSecond stage motor: Rocket Lab’s special low-emission motor burns a hybrid mixture of solid and liquid fuel. Eventually the entire rocket will run on the hybrid fuel