Rocket Lab’s 3D-Printed Rocket Engine Ready for Test Flights
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on May 30, 2016 |

The NewSpace era is slowly unfolding before us, as the first commercial 3D printer takes orders aboard the International Space Station, SpaceX and Blue Origin pioneer new methods for spaceflight, and Enterprise In Space establishes a new foundation for the future of space education. 

Rocket Lab, a company based out of the U.S. and New Zealand, is doing its own work to redefine the very rockets used to propel spacecraft from the surface of the Earth at a much lower cost. 

Now, the firm has just announced that its unique Rutherford Engine, featuring critical 3D-printed components, has completed the battery of tests necessary to qualify the Electron Launch Vehicle for flight.

The Rutherford Engine from Rocket Lab undergoing hot fire testing for flight qualification. (Image courtesy of Rocket Lab.)
The Rutherford Engine from Rocket Lab undergoing hot fire testing for flight qualification. (Image courtesy of Rocket Lab.)

The 5,000 lbf Rutherford Engine is novel in the fact that, not only are all of its primary parts 3D printed, but the engine also relies on an electric propulsion cycle. The thrust chamber, main propellant valves, injector, and turbopumps are all 3D printed from titanium alloy using Arcam’s electron beam melting technology. Lithium-polymer batteries are employed to drive power to brushless DC motors, which, in turn, send liquid oxygen and kerosene to the combustion chamber. 

The system is designed to power the Electron launch vehicle, a two-stage spacecraft specifically designed to carry small payloads into space at a lower cost than existing launch programs. The first stage of the Electron features nine Rutherford engines to propel the vehicle into space, with the second stage using only one Rutherford with an extended nozzle. Altogether, this allows the Electron to carry 150 kg to a 500 km sun-synchronous orbit.   

By using electric batteries in its system, the company believes that it can reduce the cost of sending such objects as constellation satellites into orbit to just $4.9 million per launch. ULA launches, on the other hand, are estimated to cost an average of $225 million, while SpaceX, already thought to be reducing the cost of spaceflight, charges $62 million.


Rocket Lab’s Rutherford Engine Qualified for Flight from Rocket Lab on Vimeo.

Rocket Lab has spent the past two years putting the Rutherford Engine through a battery of tests, including more than 200 engine hot fires. As a result, the engine will be flown during a test program for the Electron to occur during the second half of 2016. 

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