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New Zealand Sent a 3D-Printed Rocket to Space

Will the Electron usher in a new era for satellites?

smithsonian.com

From household fixes to artificial organs, 3D printing is popping up everywhere. But the international startup Rocket Lab is thinking even bigger: rockets. Today, their 3D-printed rocket successfully made it to space.

As Reuters reports, the rocket—called the Electron—completed a successful test launch from the remote Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. Clocking in at a wee 55 feet long, the battery-powered, low-cost rocket made it to space after multiple weather delays earlier this week.

In this case, “space” doesn’t mean orbit. “We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why,” said Peter Beck, the company’s founder and CEO, in a press release. Nonetheless, the carbon-composite rocket, whose engine took a full 24 hours to print, made it up past Earth’s atmosphere with a cargo of sensors. Data will now be analyzed to figure out how to improve the rocket.

Its 3D-printed construction wasn’t the only new thing about the Electron. As the BBC notes, it was the first such launch from a private facility. The existence of petite, privately available spacecraft could create new opportunities to get satellites and other tech up into orbit for less money—and since New Zealand doesn’t have as much air traffic as the U.S., it could allow private industry to do so more often with less fuss.

The New Zealand Herald’s Grant Bradley reports that government officials and kiwis are excited about the potential of a space industry in their country. However, not everyone is thrilled about the launch. As Reuters notes, the people of Mahia, which is largely Maori, complained about their home being turned into a launch pad, especially in light of Rocket Lab’s plans to launch regularly in the future.  

Someone else was doubtless watching as the rocket launched: NASA. In 2015, the agency awarded Rocket Lab a $6.9 million contract to figure out how to send tiny CubeSats—miniature satellites—to space without forcing the devices to hitch a ride on other rocket launches. Once that happens, it could make space research a lot less risky, yielding valuable new scientific information without a mammoth investment.

Are 3D-printed rockets truly the wave of the future? We won’t know until they’re in regular use—but the launch shows that the possibility is closer than ever.

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