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In a control room in Auckland, a flight controller counted down. At T-0, flame bloomed from the rocket's nine 3D-printed engines, and the machine hurled into the sky with a roar.
And with that, small satellite company Rocket Lab launched its first mission of the year. The mission, dubbed Birds of a Feather, and the aerospace manufacturer's tenth launch in total, put them on track to launch a rocket a month in 2020.
Only the coronavirus pandemic was able to put the brakes on Rocket Lab's forward momentum. After New Zealand went into lockdown in March, the company had to pull the next rocket it had been prepping for launch off the pad. "The good news is we'd been producing rockets flat out, so there are a lot of vehicles on the shop floor," Rocket Lab CEO told me the week of the shutdown. "When all of this passes we'll be in a very strong position to put the pedal to the metal and get some launches away quickly."
Eventually, the company plans to launch at the breakneck pace—for a rocket company—of a rocket a week.
This frequent launch capability and relatively small size—optimized for satellites up to 330 pounds versus several tons for a typical satellite in high orbit—have put Rocket Lab's lower-cost Electron rocket in demand from everyone from the U.S. Department of Defense to logistics companies.
And logistics, say some observers, will never be the same.
Rocket Lab is first out of the gate with dedicated small satellite launch capabilities, but it will soon have company. Virgin Orbit, for example, is readying a small satellite launcher of its own, called LauncherOne.
The new breed of launch companies will enable a host of new capabilities, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck tells me.
“From a maritime-monitoring perspective, commercial operators can keep tabs on their ships at all times, ensuring safe passage in all weather and all locations."
That's because, thanks to more affordable and frequent launches, companies can launch many satellites for the price of one large conventional satellite that doesn't provide complete global coverage. The result, agrees Juha-Matti Liukkonen, Director of Space and New Technologies at consultancy Reaktor, will be a transformed logistics industry.
Small satellites in low orbit will also allow trucks and airplanes to stay in constant contact with dispatchers and enable shippers to keep tabs on their cargo throughout their journeys through data connections providing updates on location, the conditions inside containers, and more. This is especially important for sensitive shipments like medicines or refrigerated and frozen food.
Internet of Things technology now gives shipping companies the ability to not only monitor cargo in transit but also to adjust temperatures and even the mix of atmospheric gases in shipping compartments. But only if vehicles remain in data-communications range. If they don't, and dispatchers miss an abrupt change in the condition of their cargo, shipments can go bad, resulting in losses for both shippers and customers.
Small satellites can change that prospect with continuous, worldwide connectivity. “By establishing a constellation of small satellites, rather than relying on single, larger platforms, you can deliver near-real-time data from all over the globe," Beck says. Spire and UnseenLabs are two Rocket Lab customers providing satellite data to logistics companies.
And there's more to come from the more affordable space launch enabled by small satellite launchers—in logistics and elsewhere.
“I firmly believe the most exciting thing to happen in space hasn't been thought of yet," Beck says. "The internet is a good analogy. If it cost tens of millions of dollars to get online, why would individuals, students, researchers, and companies bother developing websites, apps, and solutions that could change lives? It would only be within the grasp of governments and billionaires to develop anything."
And that, Beck points out, has been the case with space until today. Now, he says, even high school students have the potential to experiment in space. There's no telling what the next generation will bring.