Another Launch Startup Gets Work from the Air Force

Anton Chernigovskii/

New Zealand-based Rocket Lab will orbit a trio of satellites as Pentagon hunts for cheap ways to put sensors in space.

Rocket Lab, a startup that aims to put satellites into low Earth orbit inexpensively, has a big new customer. The United States Air Force will launch three experimental satellites aboard one of Rocket Lab’s Electron rockets this April in New Zealand, service officials said Wednesday.

The satellites—the Space Plug and Play Architecture Research CubeSat-1, the Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment and Harbinger—will help the service explore software-defined radio and avionics; tracking of space objects and debris; and the ability of commercial satellites to meet Defense Department space requirements, respectively.

The Air Force used the Defense Innovation Unit’s’ Commercial Solutions Opening process “to competitively and rapidly award DoD launch service agreements with non-traditional, venture-class companies,” a service press release said.

It’s a big win for a company valued at a little over $1.2 billion. Rocket Lab launched an experimental satellite for DARPA on March 28 and had previously, satellites for U.S. Special Operations Command and microsatellite maker Planet Labs.

With the help of advanced 3D printing for the parts on the company’s Rutherford engine, Rocket Lab hopes to bring the cost of a launch down from a reported around $6 million to just $5 million and eventually conduct 55 launches per year.

The news comes as the Pentagon seeks ways to loft constellations of imaging satellites into low Earth orbit, creating a “sensor layer” that Defense Department officials say is essential to tracking future Russian and Chinese hypersonic missiles.

Several military leaders made that point again on Wednesday at a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., expressed impatience with how slowly the Pentagon was getting the new sensor layer into space, a hold-up he attributed to the ongoing reorganization of the military’s space efforts.

“This seems like a thing we should be doing now,” Heinrich said, referring to a new sensor layer. “Isn’t this an urgent need that we ought to be focused on now?” he asked Defense Undersecretary for Policy John Rood.

“Senator, I would agree that this is a high-priority need,” Rood answered. “The hypersonic testing that we see being conducted by countries like is a noteworthy concern.”