Rocket Lab's Electron ready for its giant leap

Engine testing on Stage 1 (Rocket Lab)
Engine testing on Stage 1 (Rocket Lab)

The last major milestone before lift-off has been completed by Rocket Lab, which is now aiming for an early 2017 test flight for its Electron space vehicle.

The first-stage booster, powered by 12 Rutherford engines, has passed its 'qualification' and 'acceptance' stages at a secret testing facility just outside Auckland.

Now it will be shipped to Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 on the remote Mahia Peninsula to be assembled.

Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck says the company plans to begin full vehicle testing in early 2017 once international launch licensing is complete.

"Mahia township experiences a considerable population spike through the summer and, in order to minimise any disruptions to local residents and visitors, our preference is to conduct the first test launch after the holidays."

Rocket Lab had hoped to launch before Christmas 2016, but Mr Beck says the company is being conservative.

"You know we will fly when we are ready but we had certainly hoped to get one away this year, but also our team has worked pretty incredible hours this year so we thought it was unfair to push through Christmas."

The delay means some of the commercial flights have had to be pushed back, but Mr Beck says that's had no effect on his customers.

"Quite the opposite - our 2017 manifest is absolutely full and 2018 much the same, so we have the opposite problem."

The first stage booster has been designed and built by Rocket Lab, with some parts 3D-printed here in New Zealand.

It generates 1 million horsepower. In comparison, the much larger Space Shuttle needed 37 million horsepower to get into orbit.

Electron is a two-stage vehicle 1.2m in diameter and 17m in height, designed to deliver a 150kg payload to a 500km orbit, the target range for the high-growth constellation-satellite market.

Dedicated Electron launches are priced from US$4.9 million, but a small satellite the size of a lunchbox could cost as little as US$50,000 to put into orbit.