Space

"World's first battery-powered rocket" readied for launch

"World's first battery-powered...
The Electron launch system uses a battery-powered turbopump in its Rutherford engine
The Electron launch system uses a battery-powered turbopump in its Rutherford engine
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Electron launch system avionics
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Electron launch system avionics
Electron launch system first stage
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Electron launch system first stage
Electron launch system payload bay
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Electron launch system payload bay
The Rutherford engine
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The Rutherford engine
Electron launch system payload stage
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Electron launch system payload stage
Electron launch system second stage
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Electron launch system second stage
Electron launch system nosecone
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Electron launch system nosecone
The Electro launch systemn uses 3D printed parts
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The Electro launch systemn uses 3D printed parts
The Electron launch system uses a battery-powered turbopump in its Rutherford engine
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The Electron launch system uses a battery-powered turbopump in its Rutherford engine
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Though there have been tremendous advances in space technology in recent years, when it comes to getting into space, we're still like cavemen trying to get beyond the breakers on a floating log – at least, that's the view of New Zealand-based company Rocket Lab. In the hopes of increasing the number of satellite launches to over 100 a year and placing constellations of small satellites into orbit numbering in the thousands, the company has developed a "battery-powered" rocket engine to lift its Electron launch vehicle at almost a tenth of the cost of conventional boosters.

Liquid rocket engines are hungry beasts that require huge quantities of propellants for every second of flight. To manage this, engines use turbopumps to feed propellants into the combustion chamber. In a conventional design, a centrifugal or axial-flow turbopump is driven by a gas turbine. This has done the job very well since the first rocket turbopumps were developed in the 1940s, but they're complex, heavy affairs that need their own fuel systems to operate.

Rocket Lab's idea for making a lighter, simpler liquid rocket is its Rutherford engine. Named after New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford, it's an electric turbopump engine that burns a mixture of liquid oxygen and RP-1 rocket fuel, which is a highly refined type of kerosene. Unlike conventional engines, in the Rutherford, the gas-powered turbine to run the pump is replaced with a brushless DC motor and lithium polymer batteries, and provides enough fuel for the Rutherford to generate 4,600 lbf (20,462 N) of thrust and a specific impulse of 327 seconds.

The Rutherford engine
The Rutherford engine

The company says that the Rutherford is also notable as the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use 3D printing for all its primary components, including the regeneratively cooled thrust chamber, injector, pumps, and main propellant valves.

The Electron itself is a two-stage rocket measuring 1 m (3.2 ft) in diameter and 20 m (65.6 ft) high, and is designed to lift a 100 kg (220 lb) payload into a 500 km (310 mi) Sun-synchronous orbit. This is due, in part, to its extremely light carbon-composite construction, which, according to Rocket Lab, gives it a dry weight that's lighter than a Mini Cooper. These composites not only allow for bespoke construction with the tanks and other components designed with strength only in the needed directions, but also for tanks compatible with liquid oxygen combined with a proprietary thermal protection system for the cryogenics.

According to Rocket Lab, there are not only nine Rutherford engines in the first stage producing 34,500 to 41,500 lbf (153,464 – 184,602 N) of thrust, but the second stage uses a variant of the Rutherford engine designed to work more efficiently in the vacuum of space. The vacuum variant differs only in nozzle shape, with the same basic engine design for both stages providing for faster production.

Electron launch system first stage
Electron launch system first stage

Another innovation for the Electron is its two-axis thrust vector control system for launching in strong winds, and its advanced avionics system weighing 19 lb (8.6 kg). The launcher also uses a plug-and-play system to prevent cascading delays and allows customers to provide alternative payloads at short notice.

Rocket Lab says that when the system is up and running, the Electron booster will be able to lift a payload into orbit using less fuel than a 737 flying from New York to Los Angeles, and will cost US$4.9 million per launch. This is a 91 percent saving on current launch costs, with Rocket Lab using an all-in-one launching service by providing not only the rocket, but also the commercial launch facility in New Zealand.

The first flight of the Electron launch system is slated for later this year with commercial operations targeted to begin in 2016.

The system is described in the video below.

Source: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab Epic

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19 comments
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
Imagine if this could be re-used? This is probably a bit further in the future.
VirtualGathis
If they can truly deliver a 90% cost savings to orbit SpaceX might have an actual competitor. That is assuming they can scale it up to a larger design. They would definitely take over the small launch market even if this is their only rocket.
We are definitely living in interesting times.
Leonard Foster Jr
Nice! But it still can be done for less than a million.
Captain Obvious
The video described...nothing.
Dave Lawrence
I have a friend who would like to be the first to be strapped to one of these and shot into space
voluntaryist
Finally, a breakthrough! I bet the lack of govt. regs/taxation had a lot to do with helping this innovation. The tech economy will shift now. It can go anywhere business friendly, e.g., a small, limited govt.
I expect the next paradigm shift in gravity escape will be a space elevator.
Zolartan
@VirtualGathis
Well they might have reduced the launch costs for launching a single rocket into orbit. But I think the more important number here is payload costs to orbit. This rocket only has 150 kg to LEO while the SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 delivers 13150 kg. Looking at the rocket costs of 4.9 Million and 61.2 Million respectively we arrive at payload costs to LEO of 32700 €/kg for the Electron and 4700 €/kg for the Falcon. I don' think SpaceX has anything to fear here!
Sources for numbers: http://www.spacex.com/about/capabilities http://www.rocketlabusa.com/index.html
the.other.will
I would like to see the cost for a 100 kg payload to a 500 km orbit from the companies that are currently providing that service. The Rocket Lab design appears to be innovative & a major improvement over traditional designs but the basic physics of rocketry haven't changed.
Jim Cline
Re a space elevator being the next paradigm shift in space access, it will be interesting to see how that works out. Since either the anchored tether linear space elevator swung around by Earth's rotation, or the functional equivalent internal-centrifugal-supported hoop-type space escalator transportation structures, are both anchored to the Earth, meaning that they travel through the LEO space at the same angular velocity as does the Earth. This means that any LEO satellites not in careful orbits, will tend to eventually slam in to either type elevator/escalator at relative velocities of say 30,000 km/h, making a big mess of both. So there will need to be some agreement with the owners of the swarms of small sats in LEO, to first alter their orbits or de-orbit them, before either a space elevator or space escalator transportation structure can be built and last very long, to enable large scale human access to space.
GogogoStopSTOP
This is NOT a battery powered rocket. The rocket is powered by the energy stored in the oxygen-hydorgen liquid propellent!!!
The rocket PUMP is powered by a battery… and the engine is recovered by a helicopter snare.