Rocket Lab launch today as airlines sound ‘gridlocked’ skies warning

Aviation
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Rocket Lab is preparing for its second commercial flight, with a launch window opening just after 5pm today.

The mission will loft 13 tiny satellites into low Earth orbit for NASA, and will make the first time the US government agency has used a private operator to get cubesats into space.

Founder Peter Beck tweeted last night, “Launch vehicle and range have checked out green and we a go for launch tomorrow. There’s a thunderstorm brewing though, so there’s a moderate chance of a weather violation during the launch window.”

The launch window closes on December 21.

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It will also mark Rocket Lab’s third launch of the year (including its successful test flight in January) if conditions remain clear.

Flights will get more frequent. Rocket Lab plans at least 13 next year.

And its newly-opened Auckland plant has the capacity to support a launch-a-week by 2020 goal. Ultimately, Beck wants 130 launches a year.

The industry is attracting more and more investors. Rocket Lab recently raised another US$140m at a US$1billion+ valuation (with ACC and Sir Stephen Tindall chipping in) as Beck talked about his company grabbing a good share of more than 2600 satellite launches planned over the next four years.

But Rocket Lab’s latest flight also comes on the same day that US airlines warn a growing number of launches is causing problems in already over-crowded skies.

Space X’s Falcon Heavy launch in Florida in February, for example, caused delays to 61 flights, and many others to take longer routes.

All up, 1400 flights have been affected by spacecraft launches this year. The US Federal Aviation Commission often shuts down airspace for hours, even though a rocket takes only 90 seconds to reach space.

That number has to be put in perspective. It’s dwarfed by the number of flights affected by weather and other factors (Orlando actually had more delays on the days on either side of the Falcon Heavy launch).

But the warning also comes at a time when rocket launch frequency is, well, sky-rocketing.

During the Space Shuttle era, NASA – the only show in town – launched an average five times a year in the US.

Elon Musk’s Space X has clocked 20 launches this year, and is upping the ante each year.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin – still in a pre-launch phase – wants to ultimately launch with Rocket Lab-like frequency.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit (a sister, commercial launch company to the space tourism Virgin Galactic) is carrying out early-stage tests. Dozens of other contenders are in the wings.

The FAA says it’s working on a system that will be able to track the fallout area from any launch explosion in real-time, but ay it won’t be ready until 2021 or 2022. Right now, co-ordinates are entered manually.

The US Airline Pilots association warns that with a projected 200 rocket launches by that time, there better be an automated tracking system in place.

It warns in a report, that “Without proper mitigations in place, the elevated levels of risk may not be acceptable.”

In a perverse way, it’s good for New Zealand, however. Beck says our relatively empty skies and shipping lanes mean even though his company will shortly open its first US launch site shortly (in Virgina), Mahia will always be its highest-frequency launch facility.

The only international flight that usually flies anywhere near Mahia is a once-a-day LATAM flight to Chile early in the afternoon and there are few smaller aircraft in the area.

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