Rocket Lab Is Using 3D Printing to Cut Costs on Satellite Launch

The company has its sights set on launching 100 satellites a year.

Image via Flickr user John Moffatt

Going into space used to come at the expense of billions of dollars, as well as years of research and development. Today, it costs roughly $50—100 million just to build a satellite, and an additional $40—50 million to blast it into orbit. Rocket Lab, a New Zealand corporation that has recently taken root in the United States, intends to use 3D printed rocket parts to bring those astronomical costs back down to earth.

“Think about the data from a single climate monitoring satellite. Now multiply this a thousand-fold and reconsider the possibilities. Now put a thousand more satellites in space for global high-speed internet,” reads the mission statement on Rocket Lab’s website.

Rocket Lab aims to position itself as the low-cost, high-frequency alternative to the expensive and outdated rockets used to put technology into orbit. The company believes it is on course to provide at least 100 launches per year, at a $5 million price tag per launch—a 91% reduction in cost.

The service will be made possible by Rocket Lab’s Electron, a carbon-composite launch vehicle powered by the corporation’s flagship Rutherford engine. The engine keeps costs low by expending less fuel than a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, as well as manufacturing all of its primary parts using 3D printing technology.

Satellite imagery of the complex patterns of West Africa's coastal waters. Image via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Rocket Lab is a business for businesses—in other words, the amount of good and range of impact that can come out of cheap, frequent launches ultimately depends on the clientele coming to Rocket Lab in need of its services.

Ideally, the company aspires to be the vessel through which satellites for crop monitoring, weather prediction, disaster forecast, live streaming, wildlife preservation, and resource management, among other ends, can be put into action.

“Space is now open for business,” says Rocket Lab’s website. Satellites, like drones, can just as easily be used for bad as they can be used for good. A satellite used to monitor rainforest depletion can easily be repurposed for spying and surveillance. Earth’s orbit is all of our concern, and Rocket Lab shoulders the responsibility of deciding who and what has eyes hanging way, way over our heads.

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