More than seven decades after the first rocket launched into space, getting into orbit is still extremely expensive. Researchers at institutions and private companies around the world are racing to reduce costs as quickly as possible. To this end, New Zealand-based company Rocket Lab has developed a new kind of rocket engine that will lift its Electron launch vehicle into orbit at a tenth of the cost of conventional boosters.
Rocket Lab designed an engine called the Rutherford especially for Electron. Conventional engines use turbopumps that are heavy and require independent fuel systems to operate. The complex turbopumps make typical rockets gas guzzlers that require large amounts of propellants for lift off. Rutherford is more efficient because of an innovative electric propulsion cycle that uses electric motors to drive its turbopumps.
Although it has sometimes been described as the first battery-powered rocket, it would be more accurate to say that the launch system uses a battery-powered turbopump. The engine still burns a mixture of liquid oxygen and rocket fuel. Rutherford is also notable for being the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use 3D printing for all of its primary components, including the regeneratively cooled thrust chamber, injector, pumps, and main propellant valves.
The two-stage Electron vehicle will use the Rutherford engine on both stages. The battery-powered turbopump will be put to the test soon. The company says Electron’s first launch will be this year, with commercial operations planned for 2016 in order to create constellations made of thousands of satellites.