In the past few months, a company called Rocket Lab has been making waves. Rocket Lab is a US corporation with a New Zealand subsidiary. It was founded back in 2006 by Peter Beck who is the current CEO and CTO. According to their website, their mission is to
"Remove the barriers to commercial space by providing frequent launch opportunities to low Earth orbit"
The Electron rocket is a two-stage orbital launch vehicle designed to reduce the cost of launching CubeSats into LEO (Low Earth Orbit). The cost of a single launch is reported to be $4.9 million. Electron can carry a maximum of 225 Kg in a single launch and stands 17 meters above the ground. Rocket Lab has developed a carbon composite capable of holding liquid oxygen which significantly reduces the weight of the launch vehicle, allowing the flights to be so cheap.
The vehicle uses nine Rutherford engines developed in-house by Rocket Lab. The primary components of the engine are 3D printed. They report that it takes only 24 hours to print a single engine. The Rutherford engines use kerosene and oxygen as its propellant, similar to the Saturn V that put man on the Moon.
Rocket Lab launch their rockets out of Mahia Peninsula in the north island of New Zealand. The site is licensed to launch rockets for the next 30 years.
The first launch of the Electron rocket took place on the 25th of May, 2017. The flight was not a complete failure nor a success. The rocket was intended to reach LEO but only made it as far as 250km above the Earth's surface. The rocket launched successfully and both the first stage and fairing section separated successfully.
Although Rocket Lab is not a SpaceX replacement, as SpaceX is capable of launching full-size cargo and satellites to a greater distance, there is an opportunity here for companies and universities to launch their CubeSats as the primary payload. Currently, most CubeSats hitchhike as a secondary payload in rockets that have extra space left over after fitting the main payload.