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By Mark Mackay and Iain Finer


Test fire of the Rutherford engine – Nine of these will work together to get Electron and its payload off the launch pad.
titleUPDATES (18 April 2015)

KiwiSpace unfortunately wasn't present at the Space Symposium, but other media coverage has revealed additional information and confirmed some of our analysis:

  • The battery-powered pump, (Peter Beck) said, can be easily changed with software, making it far easier to modify. “It takes a really complex thermodynamic problem and turns it into software that’s infinitely tweakable,” (Source
    – This supports our suggestion that Rocket Lab will have finer-grained control over the propellant mix and make it easier to optimise the engine performance.
  • Additive manufacturing allows the company to build a rocket engine in three days, versus a month for traditional approaches. (Source)
    – We would also imagine that if the process becomes optimised so you just hit "print", then you can horizontally scale a large part of the production just by having multiple 3D printers. Certainly a 3-day turnaround on building an engine is certainly impressive.
  •  The approach, says CEO Peter Beck, eliminates the complex valves and other plumbing required to use hot gas to turn turbomachinery, boosting efficiency from 50% for a typical gas generator cycle to 95%. (Source)
  • Each Rutherford engine has two electric motors the size of a soda can, Beck says, one for each propellant. The small motors generate 50 hp while spinning at 40,000 rpm, “not a trivial problem,” (Peter Beck) says. (Source)


What’s in a name?

The announcement also puts greater heritage in Rocket Lab’s choice of nomenclature for their rocket systems. Founder Peter Beck has previously announced that the engines were named after New Zealand scientist Ernest Rutherford. The choice to name the vehicle “Electron” was perhaps dismissively thought to relate to the scientist’s nuclear physics work, but may be more to do with the battery-powered rockets within.


3D-printed rocket components and engines have been successfully tested but if Rocket Lab achieves their target to launch by the end of 2015, they may be the first to achieve orbit using one.

titleUPDATES (18 April 2015)
  • In another effort to increase efficiency and hold down cost, Rocket Lab is building the regeneratively cooled engine using three-dimensional, additive-manufacturing techniques that include laser and electron-beam sintering, with Inconel and titanium powder as the feed stock. (Source)

Payload Integration

One of the more “why didn’t I think of that” announcements for both authors related to how they plan to get the satellites loaded into the rockets:


Another interesting angle is sensitive payloads and dealing with countries/organisations that don’t meet normal security requirements for dealing with rocket hardware. Potentially the US government for example could ship Rocket Lab a sealed upper-stage, with “do not open” instructions. And customers without security clearance can still hand-over their integrated satellite at the door to the building, and just not be allowed to see inside.

titleUPDATES (18 April 2015)
  • “We can integrate them within literally minutes,” he said. “It’s four bolts and we have a payload completely integrated onto the launch vehicle.” (Source)
    — This certainly is an exponential leap over the timelines for other rocket integrations.


Overall, today’s announcements by Rocket Lab are very exciting and bode well for them delivering on their planned price-point and rapid launch schedule. All this innovation needs to be flight-tested of course, but in many ways their changes simplify the rocket and reduce risks.

We hope there are more tidbits revealed at the NSS conference this week. And in the coming months we should learn where in New Zealand they’ll be launching from -- and most importantly, when that magical first launch attempt will be.


Through discussion with media at NSS, Peter Beck/Rocket Lab also provided some other useful tidbits:

  • There is little aviation and marine traffic that the company would have to work around, and New Zealand’s regulatory system is simple. “For a $400 New Zealand government fee, we can go to orbit,” (Peter Beck) said. (Source)
    — This low cost is certainly a great advantage to Rocket Lab and New Zealand for space-related activities. No doubt New Zealand will develop additional processes and legislation around rocket launch activities, but hopefully they do this in a measured way that support development of industry. Australia unfortunately front-loaded legislation in response to a commercial venture that failed to proceed, and thus launching from Australia carries a very high cost.
  • Rocket Lab currently has about 50 employees, most of whom work in New Zealand. However, Beck says he considers the company an American one, with its headquarters in Los Angeles and plans to obtain a commercial launch license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. “The vehicle flies a U.S. flag. It’s a U.S. launch vehicle,” (Peter Beck) said. (Source)
    — While no doubt fuelled by nationalistic sentiment, we can't help but feel disappointed by this statement. Perhaps it has been said to support the context of the customers they're trying to target at the Space Symposium (dominated by US companies and government), but it's a shame that they aren't embracing their NZ roots. From past reports Rocket Lab is looking to launch from Cape Canaveral at some point in the future, which would give greatly simply approval processes if they are launching US Government payloads. They've also secured several rounds of funding from US-based investors. It will be interesting to see if the rockets launching from New Zealand bear a US-flag though - as this would make the United States one of the "launching states" (as defined by space law) - and undoubtedly introduce a substantial paperwork burden.
  • Beck says the company has about 30 “commitments” from customers. (Source)


Electron Fast Facts
  • Lift off mass: 10,500kg
  • Propellant mass: 9,200kg
  • Propellants: Liquid oxygen and kerosene
  • Length: 18m
  • Diameter: 1m
  • Top speed: 27,500kph
  • Maximum engine thrust : 146,000 N (14.8 tonnes)
  • Engine equivalent power: 530,000hp
  • Nominal orbit: 500km circular sun synchronous
  • Nominal payload: 110kg