Rocket Lab Successfully Launches First NASA Mission with 3D-Printed Rocket

Rocket Lab's innovative 3D-printed rockets have been taking over the skies in 2018. Now, they're running their first mission for NASA.

3D printing space transport company Rocket Lab has launched its first mission for NASA.

The 3D-printed Electron Launch takes to the sky in its first NASA mission. (Image courtesy of Rocket Lab.)

The 3D-printed Electron Launch takes to the sky in its first NASA mission. (Image courtesy of Rocket Lab.)

Rocket Lab is a startup that focusses on getting smaller satellites airborne. Normally, satellite launching is an expensive business and small satellites need to “hitch a ride” on larger launch vehicles, giving their creators little choice in the orbits of their satellites. To accomplish this, Rocket Lab has used 3D printing to make its launch vehicles lighter and less expensive to make.

On December 16th, the company launched its ELaNa-19 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) mission from their New Zealand-based Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1. The launch vehicle, the Electron rocket, was carrying 13 CubeSat satellites for research purposes. A little less than an hour after the Electron took to the sky, the CubeSats had been deployed to their assigned orbits.

This launch comes just over a month after the startup performed its first commercial mission with the Electron, and brings the total number of satellites the company has launched this year up to 24. “To launch two missions just five weeks apart, and in the first year of orbital flights, is unprecedented. It’s exactly what the small satellite industry desperately needs, and Rocket Lab is proud to be delivering it,” said Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck. “Regular and reliable launch is now a reality for small satellites.”

These mini-satellite missions have been made possible by Rocket Lab’s unique manufacturing process. Rocket Lab manufactures all of its rockets’ essential components in-house and 3Dprints its engines by electron-beam melting (EBM), where metal powder or wire is placed under a vacuum and fused together by heat from an electron beam. This allows the company to create unique, relatively inexpensive engines.

“With 3D printing, Rocket Lab can produce an engine in days, not the months required of traditional engine manufacturing techniques,” Beck told Forbes Magazine back in May. “By speeding up the manufacturing process, we are also able to reduce cost.”

Electron uses two kinds of engines. The first is Rocket Lab’s Rutherford liquid-propellant engine, which can claim two unique firsts: the first oxygen/kerosene engine to use 3D printing for all of its primary components, and the first battery-powered rocket engine. The engine is pump-fed liquid fuel by dual electric motors and a lithium polymer battery, reducing the need for heavy pressurized fuel tanks. Because of this reduction, and the specialized 3D-printed mechanisms of the engine, it weighs only 35kg without fuel in it, reducing the cost of launching. The engine is used as both a primary stage and secondary stage engine.

The second engine is the Curie, which powers the launch vehicle’s specialized “kick stage.” The kick stage reorients the rocket once it has reached the highest point in its elliptical orbit, allowing it to “shoot out” its multiple satellites with precision into their desired orbits. The engine can reignite multiple times to let the launch vehicle “shoot” its cargo so that they’re orbiting at a safe distance from each other.

Rocket Lab is already planning launches for 2019; the next Electron launch is planned for next January. And, after a busy 2018, Beck is enthused about the possibilities the future holds. “We’re on the verge of creating unprecedented access — unprecedented access to space, for unprecedented access to information,” Beck said, in an interview back in September. “It’s just an incredibly, incredibly exciting time to be in space and to be right at the forefront of creating that access to space.”