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When we first met Peter Beck in 2010, his company Rocket Lab (formed in 2006) had not long achieved New Zealand’s first launch of a rocket into space. The suborbital sounding rocket, Ātea-1, blasted into space from Great Mercury Island on 30 November 2009. 

Making space accessible

Rocket Lab was set up with a vision to “make space more accessible”, and the early work was predominantly focused on building more affordable and efficient rockets for payload deployment.

In recent years, there has been significant growth in the small-satellite industry. Small satellites mean that the technology is no longer cost prohibitive for many organisations – the lower cost also allows more risk in terms of use. Small satellites have many applications from scientific monitoring, space-based internet, crop monitoring, weather reporting, up-to-date maritime data and search and rescue services. 

In 2012, Peter initiated the Electron programme to focus on launch services for this growing industry. 

Presently, small satellites are launched into space by buying space from larger companies that are deploying their own payloads. This means that the small-satellite companies are reliant on the times, dates and orbits set by others. Waiting times can be years, and the costs – upwards of $30 million – are beyond many.

Rocket Lab has worked to create a rocket that will provide a dedicated ride for these satellites, where the time and orbit can be negotiated and at a price that is affordable – around NZ$7 million.  

Alongside the development of the now-named Electron rocket was work to provide launch sites

The Electron rocket

The Electron is Rocket Lab’s small, all carbon-composite rocket designed and manufactured in house at their facilities in Auckland. They can tailor the rocket to meet the requirements of different missions, including a range of Sun-synchronous altitudes in circular or elliptical orbits at inclinations between 39 and 98 degrees.

The Electron’s main propulsion system is the Rutherford engine, with the rocket’s first stage composed of nine of these engines, which are powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene. Rocket Lab used 3D printing for all of the primary components of their Rutherford engine. The components for one engine can be printed in 24 hours.

Most rocket engines feed a fuel and an oxidiser into a combustion chamber, where they ignite – the combustion thrusts the rocket forward. Traditionally, pumping the propellant (the fuel and oxidiser combined) is a complicated process. It requires additional hardware, plumbing and fuel to power the pumps – all adding to the mass of the end rocket. With the Rutherford engine, Rocket Lab has eliminated a lot of this hardware and weight (and the associated risks) by powering the pumps by electric motors with lithium polymer batteries.

Rocket thrust is commonly recorded in kilonewtons – one kilonewton equals 1,000 newtons (1 kN = 1,000 N). The Electron has a peak thrust of 192 kN. Rockets are not generally rated in horsepower. Horsepower (hp) is a unit of measurement of power. The SI unit for power is the watt (W), and 1 hp equates to 746 W. For comparison, a Toyota Corolla has about 160 hp to the Electron’s 1 million hp!

Mahia launch pad

The primary launch site for the Electron is Mahia Peninsula on the East Coast. Mahia Peninsula is a remote area with a low population and minimal air and sea traffic. Therefore, it is possible to launch from the site at a significantly more frequent rate than other sites. Rocket Lab has consent to launch up to 120 times a year. In comparison, there were 22 launches last year from the United States and 82 internationally.

From the Mahia site, it is possible to reach a wide range of launch angles. This means that different missions using the site can choose an orbit ranging from 39 degrees through to polar and Sun-synchronous orbits.

For those of you in Hawke’s Bay, rest assured you are safe. During launches, there is an immediate public exclusion zone of 3 kilometres (km). Further, the Electron has a flight termination system, so if the rocket doesn’t follow the correct trajectory, it is terminated. This allows unburned fuel to ignite at altitude rather than when the vehicle hits the ground.

Learn more about launching satellites into space.

‘It’s a test’ test

The Electron rocket and Rutherford engine have been through many iterations and tests. The painstaking testing programme included hundreds of testbed trials where engines were fired on the ground. However, not all things can be tested on the ground, so in 2017, Rocket Lab announced the first launch tests for the Electron from their Mahia site. The launch tests are to gather data and experience to prepare for the commercial phase of their operation where they’ll take on missions from paying customers.

 
The first test flight of the Electron rocket, named ‘It’s a test’, took place on 25 May 2017. The rocket entered space but did not reach orbit. The rocket was intended to reach an elliptical orbit, about 300–500 km above Earth but ended up reaching an altitude of about 250 km. 

In August 2017, Rocket Lab completed its analysis of the data from the first test launch and found that the launch was terminated due to a data loss time-out, which was caused by misconfiguration of telemetry equipment owned and operated by a technician from outside of the Rocket Lab team. Four minutes into the flight, at an altitude of 224 km, the equipment lost contact with the rocket temporarily, and according to standard operating procedures, the flight was terminated. As the issue was a computer glitch, the fix for the issue is simple and procedures have been put in place to prevent a similar issue in future. No major changes to the Electron launch vehicle hardware have been required.

To infinity and beyond?

After the first tests at Mahia, Rocket Lab secured further investments. The company now has an estimated value of $1.42 billion. 

Peter Beck said, “The new funding will enable us to scale up production of Electron to meet the continued high demand we’re seeing from the growing small-satellite industry.” 

Rocket Lab has authorised the production of four additional Electron launch vehicles as it prepares for commercial operations ahead of the test flight programme. 

An economic impact assessment commissioned in June 2017 suggests that Rocket Lab and the New Zealand space industry will add between $600 million and $1.55 billion to the economy over the next 20 years.

Nasa, Planet (imaging satellites), Spire (weather satellites) and Moon Express, who are ultimately looking to send a probe to the Moon, have all signed on as customers.

Successful launch and deployment of payload

On 21 January 2018, Rocket Lab successfully reached orbit with the test flight of its second Electron orbital launch vehicle, 'Still Testing'. 'Still Testing' successfully deployed 3 small satellites into a low Earth orbit. The satellites were an Earth-imaging satellite for launch customer Planet, as well as two Lemur-2 satellites for weather and ship tracking company Spire. The success of this launch from Mahia, has made history for New Zealand. New Zealand is now one of only 11 countries that have successfully launched a satellite into orbit.

Peter Beck said of the launch, "Rocket Lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that...”.

Related content

The Science Learning Hub has many examples of how satellites are used. For a broad overview with examples of land sensing, read Satellite sensing. Learn more about Global positioning system (GPS) satellites. Examples of science research can be explored in Satellites measure sea ice thickness, Satellites to study Antarctic atmosphere and Counting penguins from space.

The Satellites and orbits interactive explains the functions of various satellites and orbits.

Learn about where the achievements of Rocket Lab sit within the history of rockets.

Useful links

Read more about the Rutherford engine that powers the Electron rocket on the Pop Science website – A 3D-Printed, Battery-Powered Rocket Engine.

The Rocket Lab website is a useful resource with various information including videos, rocket specification details and a regularly updated news section. The video of the first launch test of an Electron rocket from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 at Mahia is a highly recommended watch.

Acknowledgement

The Science Learning Hub acknowledges the research assistance provided by the students of Room 13 at Napier Central School.

 

    Published 25 August 2017, Updated 22 January 2018