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New Zealand has never had a space program, but it could soon be launching commercial rockets more often than the United States.

That's if the plans of California-based company Rocket Lab work out.

Founded by New Zealander Peter Beck, the company was last week given official approval to conduct three test launches from a remote peninsula in the South Pacific nation.

Rocket Lab is planning the first launch of its Electron rocket sometime from Monday, depending on conditions.

"So far, it's only superpowers that have gone into space," said Simon Bridges, New Zealand's economic development minister.

"For us to do it, and be in the first couple of handfuls of countries in the world, is pretty impressive."

A spectacular launch site at the foot of a rocky coastal cliff.
Photo: In the very least Rocket Lab's launches will have a stunning backdrop. (AP: Supplied by Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab sees an emerging market in delivering lots of small devices, some not much bigger than a smartphone, into low Earth orbit.

The satellites would be used for everything from monitoring crops to providing internet service.

The company hopes to begin commercial launches later this year and eventually launch one rocket every week.

It plans to keep costs low by using lightweight, disposable rockets with 3D-printed engines.

It's a different plan than some other space companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX, which uses larger rockets to carry bigger payloads.

The venture has left New Zealand officials excited and struggling to keep up.

Politicians are rushing through new space laws and the Government has set up a boutique space agency, which employs 10 people.

Business booster

A black rocket fastened onto tracks inside a hanger.
Photo: Rocket Lab's launch vehicle is a smaller, cheaper concept using electron engines. (AP: Supplied by Rocket Lab)

Mr Bridges said if Rocket Lab is successful, it could change people's perception of New Zealand from a place full of farms and nice scenery to a technologically savvy nation on the rise.

He said the space industry could soon bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each year and boost other local industries such as wine and kiwifruit.

He envisions spinoff companies and many high-paying jobs, much of it built on the back of Rocket Lab.

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The company's Electron rocket is unusual in many respects.

It carries only a small payload of about 150 kilograms. It's made from carbon fibre and uses an electric engine.

Rocket Lab says each launch will cost just $US5 million, a tiny fraction of a typical rocket launch.

Unlike SpaceX, which aims to build a rocket that's fully reusable and has successfully relaunched a used orbital-class booster, Rocket Lab's rockets are disposable.

Mr Beck said they are light and use relatively little fuel.

Big clients but tempered expectations

Customers who have signed up so far include NASA and Moon Express.

"Space has always held a fascination for me," Mr Beck said.

"Not enough people go out on nice starry night and look up."

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Both Mr Beck and Mr Bridges are careful to temper expectations for the test launch, which is scheduled to take place within a 10-day window.

They say there could be delays and things could go wrong.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Washington-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said a couple of other companies are also trying to fill the niche that Rocket Lab is aiming for but there is plenty of potential for growth.

"There was a big hole in the market," he said. "We are pretty excited about what Rocket Lab is doing."

He said the US is launching fewer than two-dozen commercial rockets a year and remains a world leader.

Rocket Lab, which is privately held, has received about $US150 million in venture capital funding, including an undisclosed amount from Bessemer Venture Partners in Silicon Valley.

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