Rocket Lab to Take Next Major Step Toward Electron Reusability by Launching Pre-Flown Engine
Rocket Lab to Take Next Major Step Toward Electron Reusability by Launching Pre-Flown Engine
For the first time a 3D printed Rutherford engine previously launched to space will be flown again on an Electron mission
Long Beach, California. April. 19, 2023 – Rocket Lab USA, Inc. (Nasdaq: RKLB) (“Rocket Lab” or “the Company”), a leading launch and space systems company, today announced it is taking the next major step in evolving the Electron launch vehicle into a reusable rocket by launching a pre-flown Rutherford engine.
The 3D printed engine, previously flown on the ‘There and Back Again’ mission launched in May 2022, has undergone extensive qualification and acceptance testing to certify it for re-flight, including multiple full mission duration hot fires where the pre-flown engine performed flawlessly and on par with a new Rutherford engine. With Rocket Lab’s propulsion team now giving the engine the green light for re-flight, it will be launched on an upcoming commercial mission scheduled for lift-off in the third quarter of this year. While the engine is ready for re-flight now, the Electron rockets scheduled for launch in the second quarter are already built with complete Rutherford powerpack assemblies so this pre-flown engine will join the production line to be integrated with an in-progress rocket. The engine is one of several recovered Rutherford engines that collectively have now been through many successful full duration hot fires to support testing and R&D efforts for recovery. The engine joins multiple systems that have been re-flown on Electron including helium press systems.
Re-flying this engine is the latest milestone in an iterative and methodical reusability program that has seen Rocket Lab recover hardware and first stages from six Electron missions to date, with the latest stage recovered on 24 March 2023 following ‘The Beat Goes On’ mission launched from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Rocket Lab has been iteratively developing and testing two recovery methods in parallel; marine recovery where Electron’s first stage returns to Earth under a parachute for a soft ocean splashdown and recovery by boat, and mid-air recovery where Electron’s first stage is caught in the air by a specialized helicopter as the stage descends back to Earth under parachute. Extensive analysis of returned stages shows that Electron withstands an ocean splashdown and engineers expect future complete stages to pass qualification and acceptance testing for re-flight with minimal refurbishment. As a result, Rocket Lab is moving forward with marine operations as the primary method of recovering Electron for re-flight. This is expected to take the number of Electron missions suitable for recovery from around 50% to between 60-70% of missions due to fewer weather constraints faced by marine recovery vs mid-air capture, while also reducing costs associated with helicopter operations. Rocket Lab will assess the opportunities for flying a complete pre-flown first stage booster following the launch of the pre-flown Rutherford engine in the third quarter this year.
“Electron is already an established workhorse rocket that has been delivering frequent and reliable access to orbit for more than five years. By evolving it into a reusable launch vehicle we plan to further increase our already steadily rising launch cadence, offering more launch availability to our customers at a time when space access is severely constrained globally,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “Reusability for small rockets is immensely challenging as they simply don’t have the fuel margins that larger rockets have to enable propulsive landing. Despite this significant technical hurdle, our team has poured relentless innovation into our reusability program and proven it’s possible to bring home small rockets and run the engines as good as new. This is a major technical achievement and sets a new standard for small launch vehicles globally. We’re in this position thanks to our diligent engineers designing robust components and over-qualifying them from the outset of the Electron program to ensure reliability, setting them up well for reuse. We look forward to continuing to rewrite the rules of small launch through reusability, while using the extensive data and experience we’re gathering along the way to inform the development of our Neutron rocket which will be an even greater step forward with a fully reusable first stage, interstage and fairing.”
About the Rutherford Engine:
Designed and built by Rocket Lab, the Rutherford engine is the world’s first 3D printed and electric pump-fed orbital rocket engine. A total of 350 Rutherford engines have been launched to space since Rocket Lab’s first Electron launch in 2017, making it one of the most reliable and frequently flown U.S. orbital rocket engines.
The Rutherford engine’s production scalability is facilitated by additively manufactured, or 3D printed, primary components. With a 3D printed combustion chamber, injectors, pumps, and main propellant valves, Rutherford has the most 3D printed components of any rocket engine in the world. These primary components can be printed in 24 hours, drastically reducing production timelines compared with traditional production methods.
Rutherford engines are used as both first stage and second stage engines on the Electron launch vehicle, with nine engines on the first stage and a single vacuum optimized engine on the second stage. The sea level versions on Electron’s first stage produce 24 kN (5,500 lbf) of thrust each and with a specific impulse of 311 seconds, while the vacuum optimized version on Electron’s second stage produces a max thrust of 24 kN (5,500 lbf) of thrust and a specific impulse of 343 seconds.
Instead of being powered by traditional gas turbine pumps, Rutherford uses a cycle of brushless DC electric motors and high-performance lithium polymer batteries to drive its propellant pumps. This cuts down on much of the complex turbomachinery typically required for gas generator cycle engines, meaning that the Rutherford is simpler to build than a traditional engine but still can achieve 90% efficiency.
Rutherford engines are manufactured at Rocket Lab’s headquarters in Long Beach, California.
Forward Looking Statements:
This press release may contain certain “forward-looking statements” within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Section 27A of the Securities Act of 1933, as amended, and Section 21E of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended. All statements, other than statements of historical facts, contained in this release, including statements regarding our expectations of financial results for first quarter 2023, strategy, future operations, future financial position, projected costs, prospects, plans and objectives of management, are forward-looking statements. Words such as, but not limited to, “anticipate,” “aim,” “believe,” “contemplate,” “continue,” “could,” “design,” “estimate,” “expect,” “intend,” “may,” “might,” “plan,” “possible,” “potential,” “predict,” “project,” “seek,” “should,” “suggest,” “strategy,” “target,” “will,” “would,” and similar expressions or phrases, or the negative of those expressions or phrases, are intended to identify forward-looking statements, although not all forward-looking statements contain these identifying words. These forward-looking statements are based on Rocket Lab’s current expectations and beliefs concerning future developments and their potential effects. These forward-looking statements involve a number of risks, uncertainties (many of which are beyond Rocket Lab’s control), or other assumptions that may cause actual results or performance to be materially different from those expressed or implied by these forward-looking statements. Many factors could cause actual future events to differ materially from the forward-looking statements in this release, including risks related to the global COVID-19 pandemic; risks related to government restrictions and lock-downs in New Zealand and other countries in which we operate that could delay or suspend our operations; delays and disruptions in expansion efforts; our dependence on a limited number of customers; the harsh and unpredictable environment of space in which our products operate which could adversely affect our launch vehicle and spacecraft; increased congestion from the proliferation of low Earth orbit constellations which could materially increase the risk of potential collision with space debris or another spacecraft and limit or impair our launch flexibility and/or access to our own orbital slots; increased competition in our industry due in part to rapid technological development and decreasing costs; technological change in our industry which we may not be able to keep up with or which may render our services uncompetitive; average selling price trends; failure of our launch vehicles, spacecraft and components to operate as intended either due to our error in design in production or through no fault of our own; launch schedule disruptions; supply chain disruptions, product delays or failures; design and engineering flaws; launch failures; natural disasters and epidemics or pandemics; changes in governmental regulations including with respect to trade and export restrictions, or in the status of our regulatory approvals or applications; or other events that force us to cancel or reschedule launches, including customer contractual rescheduling and termination rights; risks that acquisitions may not be completed on the anticipated time frame or at all or do not achieve the anticipated benefits and results; and the other risks detailed from time to time in Rocket Lab’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”), including under the heading “Risk Factors” in Rocket Lab’s Annual Report on Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2022, which was filed with the SEC on March 7, 2023, and elsewhere (including that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may also exacerbate the risks discussed therein). There can be no assurance that the future developments affecting Rocket Lab will be those that we have anticipated. Except as required by law, Rocket Lab is not undertaking any obligation to update or revise any forward-looking statements whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise.