Flying Kiwis In Space!

Well, those plucky little Kiwis have decided to join the New Space Race.

Rocket Lab’s Electron conducts inaugural flight from New Zealand
May 24, 2017 by Chris Gebhardt

The U.S.-based Rocket Lab corporation has entered the commercial launch market with the maiden flight of its Electron rocket on Thursday morning (UTC). The small-scale launcher will cater to the small satellite market, with low-end million dollar flights and its revolutionary engine design launching from the Māhia Peninsula from the North Island of New Zealand’s eastern coast. The rocket managed to get to space, albeit not to orbit.

Fly you Kiwis FLY!

The 10-day launch window for Electron’s maiden flight opened at 09:00 NZDT (New Zealand Daylight Time) on Monday, 22 May.

The time offset for New Zealand is UTC+12, placing the opening of the launch window at 21:00 UTC on Sunday, 21 May (which is 17:00 EDT on the eastern seaboard of the United States on Sunday afternoon). However, due to poor weather, the launch was delayed twice to Thursday morning. Launch finally took place, with a nominal ride to space, in the early hours of Thursday morning UTC.

“It was a great flight. We had a great first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing separation. We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our programme, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business,” said CEO Peter Beck.

Overall, Rocket Lab’s mission is to offer “lightweight, cost-effective commercial rocket launch services” to the small satellite market.
According to the company’s website, Rocket Lab lists its launch services with Electron as costing $4.9 million (USD) per flight.

Rocket Lab’s journey to its inaugural orbital launch began 11 years ago with the company’s founding by Beck, a citizen of New Zealand.

Under $5 million a launch is a very low price. Launching in the Southern Hemisphere might have advantages for some types of orbits, plus they can launch in any direction and have water “down range” for safety abort.

Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 – Māhia Peninsula:

To accommodate its customer needs, Rocket Lab developed a dedicated launch facility on the east coast of New Zealand on the Māhia Peninsula of the North Island.

Officially opened on 26 September 2016, Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 had initially been planned for construction on Kaitorete Spit on New Zealand’s South Island near Canterbury before construction negotiations stalled and Rocket Lab moved the launch site to the North Island and the Māhia Peninsula.

The selection of the Māhia Peninsula was actually more favorable from a geographic consideration as it permits a wide range of available orbital inclinations to launch into – with various Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) flights to various inclinations ranging between 39 and 98 degrees available.

The Māhia Peninsula – New Zealand’s first orbital launch site – also offered less interaction with standard aviation routes, allowing the site to be licensed for up to 100 flights per year with a maximum flight rate of one launch every 72 hours.

So being in a remote part of the ocean with few air routes, they can more or less launch at will. I can’t imagine more than one launch every 3 days. Over 100 a year? Plenty of opportunities.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket now seeks to be the first commercially available launcher to cater to the commercial smallsat market.

In all, the Electron stands 17 m (56 ft) tall, has a diameter of 1.2 m (3 ft 11 in), and carries a fully-fueled mass of 10,500 kg (23,100 lbs).

The first stage uses a cluster of 9 Rutherford electric engines, burning RP-1 (refined kerosene) and LOX (Liquid Oxygen), that provide a combined 34,500 lbs (15,649 kg) of thrust at liftoff – increasing to 41,500 lbs (18,824 kg) of thrust in a vacuum.

The first stage engines have an Isp (Specific Impulse) of 300 seconds (5 minutes) in a vacuum.

The second stage’s single Rutherford vacuum-optimized engine – also burning RP-1 and LOX – will provide 5,000 lbs (2,268 kg) of thrust and has an Isp of 327 seconds (5 minutes 27 seconds)

Years ago there was an effort by a German? guy to launch out of Zimbabwe? using kerosene / Lox modular rockets. Then a revolution in the country put them out of commission. I’ve always wondered if some clandestine forces promoted that ‘small war’ to maintain a monopoly on space at the time. Now, with all sorts of folks “going there”, maybe TPTB will allow small simple cheap kerosene / LOX rockets to become more known…

The Rutherford electric engine – the first of its kind:

Unique to the Electron rocket is its electric pump-fed Rutherford engine.

Designed in-house and specifically for the Electron, the first-of-its-kind engine – named after New Zealand scientist Ernest Rutherford – is a small, liquid-fueled engine capable of producing a maximum thrust of 5,000 lbf (22 kN) in a vacuum.

For the Electron rocket, each core stage Rutherford engine will produce a little more than 3,800 lbf at liftoff, increasing to slightly more than 4,570 lbf as the rocket ascends into the vacuum of space.

By contrast, the vacuum-optimized Rutherford on the second stage will produce the engine’s maximum 5,000 lbf.

The engines themselves are constructed largely through 3D printing, specifically through electron beam melting, with its main prop valves, injectors, pumps, and engine chambers all 3D printed. The entire engine printing process takes just 24 hours.

The unique electric design replaces the high pressure gasses used in gas-generator cycle engines with an electric motor – reducing the overall weight and increasing the efficiency of the engine.

Specifically, a rotodynamic pump will use a rotor to continuously impart energy (increase the pressure) onto the fuel and oxidizer as they flow down from their propellant tanks into the fuel and oxidizer pumps.

The electric rotodynamic pumps will spin at 40,000 rpm and increase the fuel and oxidizer pressures from between 0.2 and 0.3 MPa (29 to 44 psi) to between 10 to 20 MPa (1,500 to 2,900 psi).

The pumps on each engine will be actuated by a brushless DC electric motor – fed by a Lithium polymer battery bank – that is powered by DC (Direct Current) electricity via an inverter/switching power supply which produces the Alternating Current (AC) that then drives the various phases of the motor via a closed loop controller.

At engine start up, LOX will flow from its propellant tank into the electric oxidizer pump, from which it will travel directly into the engines’ combustion chambers.

The RP-1 will likewise drain from its propellant tank into the electric fuel pump; however, it will first be directed through heat exchange tubing down the outside of the engine nozzles before travelling back up into the combustion chambers, where it will meet the LOX.

Use of this kind of electric motor system produces a 95% efficiency as compared to the 50% efficiency achieved through standard gas-generator cycle engines.

Nifty pictures in the article, hit the link…

So a low cost 3D printed engine, big battery driving an electric high pressure pump, low pressure tank of kerosene at ambient temperature and one tank of cryo LOX. Wrapped and stacked. Then launch it. Maybe add a few R.Pi (power equivalent, hardened) boards for control and telemetry and a few electric actuators on control surfaces and you are “good to go”.

I think the era of cheap frequent access to space has finally started. In New Zealand… Wonder if they need any old computer guys on the team…

Subscribe to feed


About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in Tech Bits and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Flying Kiwis In Space!

  1. nzrobin says:

    Yup. Very proud of those guys, and don’t forget this guy too

  2. philjourdan says:

    The point of “Oceans everywhere” makes you wonder why Hawaii has not had a launch site before now.

  3. Steve C says:

    “deliver our customers to orbit”
    IME, every business has customers who make the staff want to do that … ;-)

  4. E.M.Smith says:

    @Steve C:

    Brrrump Bump!

    Yup…. one way tickets….


    I think it was due to early difficulty shipping rockets and fuels from mainland assembly points. We didn’t have superjumbo jet cargo when the space race started, and assembly was near roads and rail, not sea ports. Add in that all the eastern assembly would need to cross the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, and it starts to be a royal PITA on the logistics front. Florida and California give a pretty much 360 launch choices, between them, so those two were chosen. Now they have the advantage of established facilities.

    SpaceX IIRC just used Vandenberg for a launch for those west / polar trajectories, so the same thinking seems to be settling in to the commercial operators.

    Maybe Mexico will set up shop at the tip of Baja? I’d pay up for launch viewing seats with bar service :-) You could call it “Shooters & Shots” and folks could argue about which was what… mandatory Tequila Shots with each shot…

Comments are closed.