Shooting for the stars

Gisborne in the space age? A New Zealand start-up company wants to build the country’s second rocket launching pad on Mahia headland and as Kristine Walsh learns, it wants the community to get on board.

Gisborne in the space age? A New Zealand start-up company wants to build the country’s second rocket launching pad on Mahia headland and as Kristine Walsh learns, it wants the community to get on board.

TECH STAR: Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck has the world’s attention with his development of a low-cost means to shoot satellites into orbit.
SELLING THE STORY: Mechanical engineer Shane Fleming is charged with telling locals about Rocket Lab’s plans for a site at Onenui Station, in Mahia.
LAUNCH PAD: Rocket Lab has released illustrations it says are indicative of what a potential launch site could look like.

IT sounds like something out of The Jetsons but Kiwi company Rocket Lab says that while its steps in technology are huge, the impact on the landscape will be minimal.

Charged with communicating that message is mechanical engineer Shane Fleming, who wants people in this region to understand what the company is doing.

That’s because, having started the process of establishing a launch pad at the South Canterbury location of Kaitorete Spit, the company is now eyeing up another site at Onenui Station, in Mahia.

Rocket Lab has already lodged resource consent applications with Environment Canterbury for the site there and plans to do the same with Wairoa District Council for Mahia.

But Fleming says he wants locals to be in on it right from the start.

“That’s why we are saying up front that we are here to start the conversation and we want the community to be engaged in what we are doing,” he says.

“For now, we’re just looking at establishing the launch pad, but we have no doubt there are business opportunities to come out of it as well.”

The story so far goes something like this: Having spent years on research and development, Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck locked down the technology needed to send smaller satellite-carrying rockets into space at a much lower-than-usual cost.

Hitching a ride into space

The company is already selling slots to companies wanting their satellites to hitch a ride on the 18-metre-long carbon composite rocket, Electron, which can carry one large satellite (up to 150 kilograms) or a number of smaller CubeSats.

Fleming says the lower cost of from $NZ77,000 for the smallest CubeSat opens space up to a lot more users, doing work from weather monitoring to measuring the effects of natural disasters and tracking global deforestation.

And the international interest is there. In March, Beck secured the investment needed to take his company to the start of commercial operations in the second half of next year, which is where the Mahia project comes in.

Though they have an office in the United States, Rocket Lab’s technical team is based in New Zealand — where they see the best possible launch sites.

“We started the process looking at New Zealand from tip to toe with a long list of criteria that had to be met,” Fleming says.

“To name just a few, we were looking at air traffic, sea traffic and orbital inclinations. If you look at the Mahia Peninsula, for example, it juts out into the Pacific so the trajectory south you can achieve is very attractive from a launch perspective. It was in areas like those that Canterbury and Mahia won the day.”

Minimal environmental impact

The company wants to develop both sites at the same time, with the first test launch taking place by the end of this year. Fleming says the environmental impact of their operation will be minimal.

He says the launch pad will be about half the size of a tennis court with a few supporting buildings around it. It is hoped staff can be accommodated by renting nearby baches.

As for launches themselves, for two-to-four hours around launch time exclusion zones will apply in the air (about two kilometres) and sea (just over seven kilometres) and, during the launch itself, there will be a noise likened to the sound of a distant lawnmower.

But there will be no explosion of light, Fleming says, and no subterranean rumbles.

“If people are interested, and our experience tells us they are, all they will be able to see is a small object travelling into the atmosphere.”

Though unwilling to speak on behalf of the Maori owners of Onenui Station, Fleming says they have been “very supportive” and he hopes the nearby community will get on board, too.

“From somewhere like Mahia, we can offer a small-launch operation to take users’ satellites where they want, when they want to,” he says.

“Like any tech company we have competitors but, like anything, being first to market gives an advantage and that’s why our team is working around the clock to make it happen.”

IT sounds like something out of The Jetsons but Kiwi company Rocket Lab says that while its steps in technology are huge, the impact on the landscape will be minimal.

Charged with communicating that message is mechanical engineer Shane Fleming, who wants people in this region to understand what the company is doing.

That’s because, having started the process of establishing a launch pad at the South Canterbury location of Kaitorete Spit, the company is now eyeing up another site at Onenui Station, in Mahia.

Rocket Lab has already lodged resource consent applications with Environment Canterbury for the site there and plans to do the same with Wairoa District Council for Mahia.

But Fleming says he wants locals to be in on it right from the start.

“That’s why we are saying up front that we are here to start the conversation and we want the community to be engaged in what we are doing,” he says.

“For now, we’re just looking at establishing the launch pad, but we have no doubt there are business opportunities to come out of it as well.”

The story so far goes something like this: Having spent years on research and development, Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck locked down the technology needed to send smaller satellite-carrying rockets into space at a much lower-than-usual cost.

Hitching a ride into space

The company is already selling slots to companies wanting their satellites to hitch a ride on the 18-metre-long carbon composite rocket, Electron, which can carry one large satellite (up to 150 kilograms) or a number of smaller CubeSats.

Fleming says the lower cost of from $NZ77,000 for the smallest CubeSat opens space up to a lot more users, doing work from weather monitoring to measuring the effects of natural disasters and tracking global deforestation.

And the international interest is there. In March, Beck secured the investment needed to take his company to the start of commercial operations in the second half of next year, which is where the Mahia project comes in.

Though they have an office in the United States, Rocket Lab’s technical team is based in New Zealand — where they see the best possible launch sites.

“We started the process looking at New Zealand from tip to toe with a long list of criteria that had to be met,” Fleming says.

“To name just a few, we were looking at air traffic, sea traffic and orbital inclinations. If you look at the Mahia Peninsula, for example, it juts out into the Pacific so the trajectory south you can achieve is very attractive from a launch perspective. It was in areas like those that Canterbury and Mahia won the day.”

Minimal environmental impact

The company wants to develop both sites at the same time, with the first test launch taking place by the end of this year. Fleming says the environmental impact of their operation will be minimal.

He says the launch pad will be about half the size of a tennis court with a few supporting buildings around it. It is hoped staff can be accommodated by renting nearby baches.

As for launches themselves, for two-to-four hours around launch time exclusion zones will apply in the air (about two kilometres) and sea (just over seven kilometres) and, during the launch itself, there will be a noise likened to the sound of a distant lawnmower.

But there will be no explosion of light, Fleming says, and no subterranean rumbles.

“If people are interested, and our experience tells us they are, all they will be able to see is a small object travelling into the atmosphere.”

Though unwilling to speak on behalf of the Maori owners of Onenui Station, Fleming says they have been “very supportive” and he hopes the nearby community will get on board, too.

“From somewhere like Mahia, we can offer a small-launch operation to take users’ satellites where they want, when they want to,” he says.

“Like any tech company we have competitors but, like anything, being first to market gives an advantage and that’s why our team is working around the clock to make it happen.”

The facts

After years of research, Kiwi start-up Rocket Lab is ready to launch satellite-carrying vehicles into orbit.

To achieve that, it wants to establish two initial launch sites in New Zealand — one at Kaitorete Spit (South Canterbury) and one at Onenui Station (Mahia).

The company has already lodged resource consent applications with Environment Canterbury for the Kaitorete site and plans to do the same with Wairoa District Council for Mahia.

Rocket Lab says that while interest in the technology is huge, the impact on local communities and the environment would be minimal.

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