What rocket has 9 engines on its first stage, is built by a privately owned aerospace company, uses the most advanced manufacturing techniques available, is one of the cheapest rides to space and has a body that’s almost entirely made out of carbon fiber?
If you said SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket you’d be wrong! (its body is aluminum)
Move over Falcon 9, there’s a new kid on the block! Well, maybe not move over, but pull up a chair to the orbital class rocket table! That’s right, Rocket Lab has officially become the second privately owned rocket company to achieve orbit with their beautiful Electron rocket.
Today we’re going to give you a deep run down on some of the exciting features about the Electron, then we’re going to compare it to similar rockets including other upcoming small sat rockets, and past small sat rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 1.
We’re even going to throw in a Falcon 9 for comparison and see which rocket takes the cake for the cheapest ride to space with a cost per kilogram comparison. Oh, and I mean it when I say cake, I got this for the winner. Let’s get started!
WOOOOO HOOO Rocket Lab!!!! Congrats, you did it!!!!
On January 21st, 2018, Rocket Lab officially became the second private company to make it into orbit on private funds, and the first private company to launch something into orbit from a private launch site, launching their Electron rocket from their gorgeous launch pad located on the north island of New Zealand on the Mahia Peninsula.
The mission was cheekily named “still testing”, a fun follow up to their first test flight of the electron called “It’s a test” and their upcoming launch will be called “It’s Business time.” I love this.
Not only was the mission a perfect success on just their second attempt at an orbital flight, but they even stowed away and tested a secret kick stage that allows for flexibility in satellite deployment! It all went off perfectly and is incredibly impressive!
And to top it ALL OFF, Rocket Lab went even one step further and included ANOTHER secret item inside the payload fairing, a little treat for all of us humans here on Earth called Humanity Star.
Omg, this is so cool. So they basically launched a disco ball that would be highly reflective and due to its spin creates a beautiful blinking shooting star when viewed under the right conditions here on Earth. That’s right.
Unfortunately it’ll only stay in orbit for a couple months, so by the time you’re watching this, it’ll probably be too late to see it. But just in case, you should visit http://thehumanitystar.com to learn more about it and to check if you can see it.
The company is already full of fun, young and fresh aerospace culture, again, akin to SpaceX. For instance they made T-Shirts from this quote –
Ok, now before we get into the awesome Electron rocket that completed this exciting feat, let’s do a quick summary on who Rocket Lab is.
Rocket Lab is a United States aerospace manufacturer who’s funded entirely by private investment from backers.
Their CEO and CTO, Peter Beck, founded the company in 2006. A fellow New Zealander named, ummmm, Mark…. Mark… Rocket… , No seriously. Mark Rocket was a seed investor and co-director from 2007-2011.
Rocket Lab’s goal is to provide a dedicated launch vehicle for the growing small satellite and cubesat market. Typically, smaller satellites have to hitch a ride on a bigger rocket and they take a back seat in priority as well.
A good example of a secondary smallsat payload getting the short end of the stick is SpaceX’s fourth Falcon 9 mission, CRS-1, which launched in October, 2012. SpaceX launched their first contracted Dragon Capsule stuffed with supplies to the International Space Station, but had a secondary payload of an Orbcomm satellite that weighed only 172 kgs or 379 pounds.
One of the 9 Merlin engines of the first stage failed on ascent, which resulted in the secondary payload failing to enter its proper orbit. Due to International Space Station visiting vehicle safety rules, SpaceX wasn’t allowed a chance to boost the secondary payload into its proper orbit, which resulted in its reentry just four days after launch.
So Rocket Lab’s business case is to cater to this market that previously hasn’t had very good options other than ride sharing. Rocket Lab plans to launch 50 times a year and they say they are licensed to fly every 72 hours which is 120 times a year, making for great flexibility and opportunities for these smaller payloads.
With this increased launch cadence, RocketLab also says they have an incredibly agile approach to booking a flight. RocketLab can fulfil a launch in weeks rather than months or YEARS for more traditional aerospace companies… Now we’re talking!
Speaking of flexibility, they can also launch their Electron from a launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida, or the Pacific Spaceport complex in Alaska if the customer would need those options.
So you might be asking, what the heck has Rocket Lab been up to since their founding in 2006???
Well, in 2009 Rocket lab became for the first private company in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space with their Atea-1 sounding rocket. This thing was tiny, basically a giant hobby store model rocket only capable of launching 2kgs or 4.4 pounds to space on a quick suborbital hop… After just one launch, Rocket Lab decided to move onto the next thing.
The rocket that followed is called the Electron, and it is awesome. Here’s a quick rundown.
The Electron is a 2 stage orbital rocket which uses RP-1 fuel and Liquid Oxygen for propellant, which is very common among rockets such as Russia’s Soyuz rocket, the Saturn V, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, ULA’s Atlas V, the first stage of Orbital ATK’s Antares and many, many more.
The Electron uses 9 Rutherford engines on the first stage, and one vacuum optimised Rutherford on the upper stage. This is the same configuration as SpaceX who uses 9 of their Merlin engines on the first stage, and one vacuum-optimized Merlin engine on the upper stage on their Falcon 9 rockets.
The Rutherford is an awesome little engine. Instead of using gas generator turbo pumps which burn fuel and oxidizer to pressure feed the combustion chambers like virtually all other rocket engines ever, the Rutherford uses electric motors to spin the pumps.
This has a few cool advantages, one, it’s awesome. RIGHT? It’s like a hybrid rocket engine! And I’m thinking less Toyota Prius, more La Ferrari here on the cool hybrid scale.
Two, the engines are easier to start up and throttle, replacing hardware with software. I love that.
And three, Rocket Lab claims they reduce mass compared to a more traditional gas generator.
The next point might sound good, but it might not be very good the more you think about it. Instead of burning rocket fuel to power the pumps, it just uses batteries! That’s great, right? No need to waste fuel spinning the pumps! Well, there’s actually some disadvantages here.
For one, electric batteries, despite great improvements lately in density and power output, are still WAY behind the energy density of rocket fuel. That means in order to get the same amount of energy from a pack of a lithium polymer batteries, it would weigh more than just having that amount of extra fuel on board.
The other problem is when a battery is discharged, it still weighs the same amount, and therefore is just dead weight once it’s expended its energy. Unlike propellant, which when in the process of being used up by a gas generator is literally thrown out the back of the rocket, thereby making the rocket continually lighter, which means less mass for the engines to have to push around.
Ahhhh but here’s a cool caveat. Rocket Lab came up with a wonderful solution to this problem to help offset that downfall. On the upperstage of the Electron, there are a few banks of batteries that detach when they’re depleted. Freeing up the dead weight! Brilliant!
The Rutherford engine is also almost entirely 3D printed using an electron beam melting process to save time and money. They can print a rocket engine in just 24 hours. Very 21st century!
The cool tech doesn’t end there! The main body of the rocket and the fuel tanks are made out of an advanced carbon composite material. This is very hard to achieve considering how cold liquid oxygen is and how it tends to not play nicely with carbon fiber. But it’s lightweight and helps make the Electron very mass efficient.
Rocket Lab also takes another page from SpaceX’s playbook by making their own flight computers in house. This allows them to make highly customizable, small and common avionics hardware.
Lastly, we learned that not only did the Electron perform perfectly as planned, it actually exceeded public expectations by testing out a kick stage on their successful mission which Rocket Lab later announced was a complete success.
Their kick stage consists of a small 3D printed engine called Curie, which produces a modest 120 Newtons or about 27 pounds of thrust and runs on a “green” mono prop fuel.
What’s a kick stage? A kick stage is like a mini upper stage. It’s normal for rockets to deploy their payloads into an elliptical orbit, meaning the orbit looks like an oval instead of a circle. A spacecraft then normally has to circularize itself with its own onboard thrusters which are often very underpowered, time consuming and can detract from the lifespan of the mission.
So a kick stage simply does one final burn at the highest point of the orbit to put the payload into a final circular orbit, leading to a lot of flexibility, and increasing the options of where the Electron can deliver the payload. Dang! BONUS STAGE!
And as if ALL of this wasn’t enough, Rocket Lab even makes their own cubesat dispensers in house! It’s called Maxwell, and it’s quite beautiful.
Ok, so are you excited yet?
Well, I think it’s time to do a side by side comparison of the Electron vs some other smallsat launchers past, present and future.
So to start off the comparison, let’s talk about some competition.
Starting off with maybe the Electron’s most direct competitor, the Vector-R made by a US company called Vector Space Systems. The Vector-R is in the testing phase and has only launched a pair of test flights. The Vector-R has yet to attempt an orbital flight, but hopes to attempt one mid 2018 from their launch pad in Virginia known as MARS Pad 0B.
Next we have Orbital ATK’s air-launched Pegasus launch system. That’s right, air launched baby! This is a rocket that’s carried up to 12 km’s or 40,000 ft by an L-1011 jet where it’s released and shoots off into orbit. It was first launched in 1990 and is still in operation today.
Next we have another air-launched concept rocket called the Bloostar by a Spanish Company Zero to Infinity. This is one of my favorite future smallsat launch vehicles. The rocket that’s a donut, inside a donut with a muffin is carried above 99% of the atmosphere to 30 km’s or 19 miles in altitude by a large high altitude balloon where it’s then released and shoots off into orbit.
I’ll do a video in the future about air-launched vehicles, because I think they’re super cool and it’s a question a lot of people ask often, “why doesn’t someone launch a rocket from a balloon or jet?”… So stay tuned, or if you’re watching this in the future and I’ve already shot it, it’ll appear here in a YouTube card.
And last we have a former smallsat rocket, the Falcon 1. The Falcon 1 was SpaceX’s first rocket. It was the first rocket to reach orbit by a private company on its fourth launch attempt in 2008. It only launched one more time in 2009 before Spacex moved on to its big brother, the Falcon 9.
So first let’s line up these rockets in a side by side height comparison. The Electron stands 17 meters tall, compared to the Vector-R at 12 meters, the bloostar which stands around 3 meters, the pegasus which is 16.9 meters and the Falcon 1 which was 21 meters tall.
Next let’s check out their width. The Electron is 1.2 meters wide same as the Vector-R, the Bloostar is just over 2 meters, the pegasus 1.3 meters, and the Falcon 1 which was 1.7 meters wide.
So how heavy of a payload can each system deliver to Low Earth Orbit? The Electron can launch 225 KG, the Vector-R 50 KG, the Bloostar, 75 KG, the Pegasus 443 KG and the Falcon 1 670 KG.
So now the big, or hopefully small question, price. The Electron is $5 million, the Vector-R $1.5 million, the Bloostar $2.5 million, the Pegasus $40 million and the Falcon 1 would cost $7.5 million in today’s money.
Now the fun part. $ per KG. The Electron costs $22,222 per KG, the Vector-R $30,000 per KG, the Bloostar $25,000 per KG, the Pegasus $90,000 per KG and the Falcon 1 would be $11,194 per KG.
Some notes about these numbers. Number one, of all these options, only the Electron and Pegasus are CURRENTLY available. I expect Bloostar and Vector-R to be available to customers here soon, but if you want to book a dedicated launch vehicle today for your smallsat, it really does look like the Electron is a fantastic option.
Also, don’t take my cost per KG as stone cold fact because it was nearly impossible to find quotes to compare the exact same orbital parameters, so these are just decent estimates.
Earlier, we compared the Electron to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 due to their similar engine configurations. So just for funsies, let’s just put these two vehicles side by side to compare them, shall we?
The Falcon 9 is big! Standing at 70 meters or 230 feet tall, it is a significantly larger vehicle than the Electron which is at 17 meters or 55 feet tall. The Falcon 9 is also just over 3 times wider at 3.66 meters or 12 feet wide to the Electron’s 1.2 meters or 4 feet.
Now here’s where things get kind of silly. The Falcon 9 is capable of putting 22,800 kgs to Low Earth Orbit compared to the Electron’s 225 kgs. The Falcon 9’s launch cost is $62 million to the Electrons $5 million.
So lastly, we get their dollar per KG ratio. Remember, the Electron had an impressive $22,222 per KG to low Earth orbit. But… that’s nothing compared to the Falcon 9 which has a ridiculous $2,719 per KG and that’s without factoring in SpaceX’s future price drops due to being able to use previously flown launch vehicles which hopefully will bring the the cost down another 30-50%.
So I know this comparison isn’t fair and it isn’t meant to put the Electron down, but for now, SpaceX, you still get the cake. Or what’s left of it…
BUT WE CAN’T END THERE. We’re excited about the Electron!! It’s awesome! It launches from the most beautiful place in the world, it’s half black and white, it’s got an awesome hybrid electric turbo pump and 3D printed engines!! I mean come on.
So let’s end with what exciting things Electron has in store.
As we mentioned before, RocketLab’s third mission will be called “Business Time” and will be launching two Lemur-2 cubesats for the company Spire Global. The fourth mission will feature a dozen cubesats for NASA!
But one of the most exciting destinations for an upcoming Electron mission is… You MIGHT not believe this… The MOON!!
That’s right! Moon Express is a Florida based company whose goal is to eventually mine the moon! They were competing and the leading contender to take home the Google Lunar X prize, a 20 million dollar top prize contest that ended in March of 2018…
The award would have gone to the first privately funded team to land a spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit back high-definition video and images. Unfortunately, despite trying very hard, Moon Express and Rocket Lab didn’t make it by then, leaving the prize unclaimed.
This will be a mission you absolutely cannot miss. It’s so cool to think that such a small launch vehicle is capable of an awesome feat like doing a moon mission.
While we’re talking about the future, we should talk about the future plans of Electron. I reached out to Rocketlab and asked them about reusability and any future plans for upgrades or larger launch vehicles.
Here’s their response:
“Currently, Rocket Lab are focusing on ramping up production to enable unprecedented launch frequencies and to service the numerous customers on our launch manifest. Electron was designed from the beginning to be quick, efficient and low-cost to produce. This path was chosen over pursuing reusability due to the added research and development time needed, and the importance of wanting to open up access to space as soon as possible for our customers who (until Sunday) had no dedicated, affordable orbital launcher.
The added mass associated with booster reusability also impacts the payload capability of small launch vehicles more than larger launchers, so there are no current plans to pursue reusability in the future.”
I get it. They have such a small payload capability now, adding hardware for reusability would just cut into that already limited payload mass. And although I agree, they should ramp up production and get to making some money, I hope that someday they make enough money to start looking towards bigger and reusable launch vehicles.
Besides, their electronic turbo pumps would make for a very precise, highly controllable throttled rocket engine for propulsive landings. Woah that was a mouth full. Let’s say it again more betterer. Their engine that has that electric motor would be good at landing a rocket because it is precise and quick to react to stuff. There. Much better.
So all in all Rocket Lab is the new cool kid on the block in the orbital rocket game. They’ve got an exciting future and are doing an excellent job of bringing everyone along for the ride. I look forward to seeing much more from them!
What do you think about Rocket Lab? Are you excited about their Electron rocket? Let me know your thoughts! Also let me know if you have any other questions about Rocket Lab, the Electron, the Rutherford engine, or anything else space related!
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