First stage of the Electron rocket.
Rocket Lab has achieved a rarefied status in the space startup world: unicorn. The Los Angeles-based company announced today that it’s closed a $75 million Series D round at a valuation of over $1 billion. The round was led by Data Collective, with additional investment from Promus Ventures and an undisclosed investor. Previous investors Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners and K1W1 also participated in the funding. The company has raised $148 million to date.
"This round of funding is really all about scaling up," Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck told Forbes. "We need to increase our production rate enormously."
Rocket Lab’s goal isn’t aimed at putting people into space or sending them to Mars, like SpaceX. Instead, they’re targeting the growing market in smaller satellites. The cost of building smaller satellites have gone down enormously over the past decade, with startups like Planet and Spire leading the way in developing new capabilities for them. But rocket technology is still based around sending much larger satellites into orbit. That leaves small satellite operators having to hitch rides with bigger payloads, such as those big communication satellites. That’s costly and leaves them at the mercy of the schedule of the bigger satellite companies.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, on the other hand, is aimed precisely at delivering these smaller payloads into orbit – and at a fast rate. Once the company’s production is fully up and running, Beck says, they want to launch a rocket every week. They aim to do this with two key strategies: First, mass producing rockets and second, using their launch facility in New Zealand, which avoids some of the issues that can slow down rocket launches in the U.S.
"The vehicle was designed from the outset to be mass produced," Beck said. "That’s so we’ll be able to produce them at the rate. 3D printed engine – with 6 printers can produce one in 24 hours. So to scale up there we just buy more printers. The whole launch vehicle has been engineered and designed around manufacturability. But that obviously takes capital."
The Electron rockets are produced in two different facilities. The Rutherford engines are built at the company’s manufacturing facility in Los Angeles, while the main rocket structures will be manufactured closer to their launch facility in New Zealand.
The company’s first Electron rocket is undergoing a series of tests for its first launch in just a few weeks. The company then hopes to send up its second and third rockets for test flights in short order. Those rockets are already in production. If all goes as planned, Rocket Lab will be launching its first commercial payloads before the end of 2017. Customers slated for this year include NASA, Planet, and Moon Express.
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