Rocket Lab Electron, the next-gen lightweight launcher

NOTE : This article was written by a previous coworker, and not by the current writer and owner of the website.

Rocket Lab Electron, the next-gen lightweight launcher

Introduction :

Nowadays, technology constantly changes, and quite fast ! We are now able to miniaturize components to incredibly small sizes.

Space is not left behind, and the weight of components changed from several kilograms to ridiculous lightweight parts. The launchers that were able to launch heavy payloads are now used for small ones, this means they have plenty of unused launch to orbit capabilities ! Cubesats or light satellites won't use heavy rockets, however, they can share the same rocket with another payload. In these case, you'll probably wait longuer than a classical launch, and the lightest payload won't be prioritary.

The other solution is to check one of the small launchers availabale.

Nanosat launchers :

We can list the Electron (RocketLab) or the LauncherOne (Virgin Orbit) or even the Vector - R (Vector Space System). The Electron is (actually) the only working launcher, though.

The amount of rockets in this category will explode in a few : more and more people are interested by lightweight launchers. The japanese SS-520 is the smallest orbital-capable rocket flying.

Rocket Lab :

This company was created in New Zealand in 2006 by Peter Beck. At the beginning, they built suborbitals rockets like the Ātea-1 (apogee : 120km, payload : 2kgs).

Their headquarters are located in California. They were a total of 1000 employees in 2016, and they are building a good relationship with NASA to launch CubeSats to orbit.

The Electron rocket :

Let's finally talk about this launcher. It's a really lightweight launcher ! She weights 12.5 metric tons, is 17 meters tall and her diameter is only 1.2 meters.

Her fuselage is made of carbon fibers, so she is black, which is not often saw on rockets ! Usually, they are painted with white colors, in order to reduce the heating coming from the sun and the boiling of fuel inside.

A private launch costs about $5 millions, but you can share the launch with another payload and customer.

The engines :

Like SpaceX, RocketLab has chosen to put the same family of engines for the 1st AND the 2nd stage. The development and production costs are reduced and the price of the rocket are low.

Back to the engines : a Rutherford engine has 18kN of thrust, the vacuum model has 22kN of thrust. The specific impulse of the sea-level engine is 311seconds, and the vacuum one has a specific impulse of 343sec. Like Falcon9, they are 9 engines located on the first stage and 1 for the second stage.

They use RP-1 and Liquid Oxygen, like lot of engines used today.

The Rutherford engine is really innovative : it's an hybrid engine. Yes, Hybrid ! It is fueled by an electric turbopump, and not a classic liquid fuel pump. The pump is 45% better and it can be 3D-printed in only 24hours ! There are only a few engines using these electric pumps nowadays...

Launch pads:

The only launch base owned by RocketLab is located in New Zealand. Theorically, they can launch a rocket every 3 days, wich is an insane rate of 120 launchs a year ! We will wait to see if it's reliable...

RocketLab wants to use Cape Canaveral (Florida) and Pacific Spaceport Complex (Alaska) to be more flexible and use several spaceports.

Timeline of a liftoff (21th of Janury 2018's flight) :

For the "Still Testing" flight, the Electron launched the Lemur-2 satellite, the Dove Pioneer CubeSat and the well known "space disco ball" Humanity Star. Let's try to see how the events goes on for a succesful mission.

The first actions :

T-07:30:00 : The rocket is raised on her launchpad.

T-06:45:00 : Second stage RP-1 fueling sequence

T-05:59:00 : Checking the launcher and payloads are GO for liftoff

T-03:00:00 : First stage RP-1 fueling sequence

T-02:00:00 : First readiness poll

T-01:59:00 : Liquid Oxygen fueling sequence & launchpad evacuation

T-00:45:00 : Safety check

T-00:20:00 : Launch GO/no GO poll

T-00:17:00 : Boiled fuel venting

Final countdown :

T-00:03:00 : Onboard start-up & auto coutdown

T-00:02:00 : The rocket is now no longuer charging and only uses her batteries

T-00:00:40 : Water Deluge system activated

T-00:00:10 : Final countdown

T-00:00:02 : Ignition

T-00:00:00 : Liftoff

T+00:00:01 : the rocket is now flying !

T+00:00:30 : Pitch Kick and Roll Maneuver

T+00:01:20 : Max-Q zone

T+00:02:30 : MECO

T+00:02:34 : Stage separation

T+00:02:36 : Second stage ignition

T+00:03:04 : Fairing jettisonned

T+00:08:14 : Second stage's engine is shutdown

T+00:08:31 : Payload separation

The future ?

The Electron is a really young rocket, and is already chosen for some NASA satellites ! The Rutherford engine is always upgraded and they think about adding a new little engine for fine-tuning the orbits.

Good luck RocketLab !

Thank you,