Rocket Lab, an American – New Zealand company, successfully launched its Electron rocket from its Mahia Peninsula launch site on the North Island of the country southeast of Australia. The small launch vehicle did not make it to orbit but did fly into space according to Peter Beck, CEO, and founder of the company. The first stage burned its engines, achieved separation, and then the second stage burned its engine and executed a fairing separation. The flight did not include a payload.

First test flight described as a success

Even though the Electron did not achieve orbit, Rocket Lab considers the flight a success.

The reason is that the company has garnered enough data to occupy its engineers for the next several weeks. The evaluation will inform the second test launch that Rocket Lab expects will achieve orbit. The company plans three test launches in all before commencing commercial operations later in 2017.

Plans for frequent flights from New Zealand

Rocket Lab has plans to launch 50 rockets a year and had regulatory permission to conduct as many as 120. By comparison, last year just 22 launches took off from the United States and 82 worldwide. The company expects to dominate the small satellite market with its unprecedented launch tempo.

What will the Rocket Lab Electron do?

The Electron incorporates a number of new technologies, including a a 3D printed, electric powered Rutherford rocket engin that greatly simplifies its construction and operation.

The rocket has nine of these engines in the first stage and one that has been designed to run in a vacuum on the second. The Electron is made of carbon composite materials and contains state of the art avionics. The rocket aims to take a 150 kg (330 pounds) payload to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit.

Rocket Lab is expected to be able to charge just under $5 million for each launch

Customers anxious await the results of the test program

Customers that have already signed up for flights on the Electron include NASA and a number of private companies. Moon Express, an American company that is developing a lunar mining and transportation business, is watching the Rocket Lab test program with particular interest.

Moon Express has contracted for three flights of its lunar landers on the Electron over the next several years. One of those launches has to happen before the end of 2017 if the company is still to be competitive in the Google Lunar XPrize, which will award a cash prize to the first private group to land a probe on the moon and perform a number of tasks. The winner of the competition will have the honor of being the first private group to land on another world.