WASHINGTON — A New Zealand- and U.S.-based company with government and Silicon Valley backing unveiled plans July 29 to field a rocket capable of providing dedicated small-satellite launches for less than $5 million.

Rocket Lab’s planned Electron rocket will be a carbon-composite vehicle capable of delivering 110-kilogram satellites into low Earth orbit. The rocket is being developed at the company’s Auckland, New Zealand, facility and would be powered by a liquid-fueled engine capable of producing roughly 32,000 pounds of thrust.

The company’s aim is to tap the growing market for commercial applications using increasingly capable small-satellite technology, Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and chief executive, said in a recent interview. Recent years have seen a number of small-satellite startups backed by Silicon Valley venture capital, including Skybox Imaging and Planet Labs.

To date, many of these target customers have launched their satellites as secondary payloads, often on Russian rockets. 

Beck says Rocket Lab offers a big advantage in that customers with dedicated rockets do not have to compromise on the orbit and timing of their launches.

Rocket Lab’s primary financial backer is Khosla Ventures, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm led by Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla. 

“We are thrilled to be investing in the next chapter of Rocket Lab’s development as they drive down the cost of launch vehicles to provide greater access to space,” Khosla said in a prepared statement. “The company’s technical innovations will truly transform the space industry.”

Beck said Rocket Lab also has received financial backing from the New Zealand government. Although based in Auckland, the company bills itself as a U.S. company.

In the press release, Rocket Labs said it has secured customer commitments for the first 30 Electron launches.  

The Electron rocket will measure 18 meters tall by 1 meter in diameter and weigh more than 10 tons, the company said. The company hopes to debut the rocket next year from an unspecified facility in New Zealand.

Beck founded Rocket Labs in 2007 and the company has since developed and launched small sounding rockets and executed technology contracts for customers including the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Beck said that work is being suspended so the company can focus its full energies on Electron.

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Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...