Commercial rocket from New Zealand reaches orbit

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Electron launched from the Mahia Peninsula yesterday afternoon, carrying a payload of commercial satellites into low Earth orbit.

Although New Zealand-founded, Rocket Lab lists itself as an American company with headquarters at a wholly-owned New Zealand subsidiary.

Following successful first and second stage burns, Electron reached orbit and deployed customer payloads at 8 minutes and 31 seconds after lift-off.

The company hopes to begin commercial launches next year and eventually launch one rocket every week.

Before customers can start flying, Rocket Lab needed to show that the Electron could do its job, and getting to orbit was a key goal of this test.

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Small satellites are becoming more common.

. That's why the company's Electron rocket isn't very big itself.

Still Testing will carry small Earth-imaging satellites for U.S. companies Planet Labs and Spire Global. Its Rutherford rocket engines are created by a 3D printing process.

Richard Easther, a professor of physics at the University of Auckland, told Stuff.co.nz that Sunday was a "red-letter day for New Zealand," thanks to the Electron's orbital success. Moon Express is also competing as part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition - a contest to send the first privately funded lander to the Moon's surface - and the deadline to win is coming up. It aims to develop a low-priced transportation system to allow customers to send payloads, first to the moon, and then to destinations throughout the solar system at an affordable price. Participants have to complete their lunar excursions before March 31st, 2018 in order to win the grand prize money.

"We'll become the second company in the world to have put something in orbit, and New Zealand the 11th nation", said company founder Peter Beck. They're thrilled to reach this milestone so quickly after their first test launch.

Shortly after, it suspended launch attempts until early 2018.

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