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Investing in Space

Rocket Lab building spacecraft to pair with its rockets, likely saving start-ups millions of dollars

Key Points
  • Rocket Lab unveiled the "Photon satellite platform" on Monday, adding a spacecraft service to its business of building and launching small rockets.
  • "Nobody has ever integrated the satellite's spacecraft with the rocket and it's the next evolution," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNBC.
  • Photon means satellite companies don't need to "invest millions of dollars" in bringing together a team and manufacturing complex space hardware, Beck says.
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Small rockets: The FedEx of space?

The private leader in building small rockets is evolving its business with a service that may well revolutionize how spacecraft are built, be it by start-ups or even the military.

Rocket Lab unveiled the "Photon satellite platform" on Monday, which the company developed and built as an evolution of the upper stage of its Electron rocket. An upper stage is the smaller top section of a rocket that separates from the bottom "booster" stage of the rocket.

"From day one Photon has been part of the business plan," CEO Peter Beck told CNBC. "Nobody has ever integrated the satellite's spacecraft with the rocket and it's the next evolution."

Rocket Lab's "Photon" satellite platform, on the right, is shown at the company's factory alongside an upper stage of the Electron rocket.
Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab's primary business is building and launching small rockets, which send spacecraft about the size of a refrigerator into orbit. The company's Electron rocket is priced at about $6.5 million to $7 million per launch but now, due to the expanded capabilities provided by Photon, Beck said the price "goes anywhere up" from there.

Photon will give satellite companies a new option for testing and operating technologies in space. Previously, a satellite company that wants to launch a sensor for imaging or analytics would need to build its own hardware to house and power that technology. But Rocket Lab's Photon will give satellite technologies an option that reduces the cost and risk involved with building a spacecraft.

"Launch was the first bit that we needed to solve ... but it always seemed crazy to me" that the rocket builder did not also build the hardware for a satellite, Beck said. Photon means satellite companies don't need to "invest millions of dollars" in bringing together a team and manufacturing complex space hardware.

"Any customer that has built a spacecraft can stand back and now reassess whether they still need to build their own," Beck said. "The real game changer here is the reduction in time and pain to generate revenue is enormous."

The company calls Photon a highly-evolved version of the company's "kick stage," which Rocket Lab has successfully used four times to deliver payloads to specific orbits.

Rocket Lab engineers prepare a "kick stage" with several payloads attached before a mission.
Rocket Lab

The spacecraft a rocket lifts to orbit is typically made up of two parts: The bus and the payload. The bus is the structure that holds, powers and controls the spacecraft, while the payload is the delicate sensors or cameras that are the core technology. Rocket Lab's chief payload systems engineer Grant Bonin explained how Photon, since it's more closely integrated with Electron, will result in a "greater maximum usable mass for payload" on each rocket. He estimates that spacecraft currently launched by Electron "cannibalize" about 30% to 60% of the mass that a payload could use.

"By consolidating a lot of that we can take care so much of the work" satellite companies usually have to consider when trying to send their technology to space," Bonin said. "One stop shop for a space mission."

A piece of Rocket Lab's $140 million fundraising in November went to developing Photon. However, CFO Adam Spice said that it was a negligible amount, as "we still have almost all of that dry powder still in the keg" from the funding round. He credits that to the company's lean use of funds, saying that "people get more done with fewer resources than I've ever seen" at Rocket Lab.