Earlier today, Rocket Lab successfully launched an Electron rocket into orbit from their launch site on the Mahia Peninsula of the north island of New Zealand. Here is video of the final countdown and flight.
The Electron is a “smallsat” launcher with a maximum payload capacity of 225 kg to low Earth orbit, with the ability to place 150 kg in a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit. The launcher uses Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engines: nine in the first stage and one with a vacuum nozzle extension in the second stage. The engines are largely produced by additive manufacturing (“3D printing”) and are designed for high volume and low cost production. Uniquely among current rocket engines, fuel is pumped into the combustion chamber by an electric pump powered by a lithium polymer battery. This increases the efficiency of the engine from the 50% typical of gas generator cycle engines to around 95% without the plumber’s nightmare complexity and propensity to explode of staged combustion designs.
On this flight, the Electron carried three small satellites for two customers. Previously, most small satellites were launched as piggyback or ride-sharing payloads on launches of other satellites, which constrained the small satellite operators to use the same orbits and operate on the schedule of the primary payload. Rocket Lab hopes to provide responsive launch to whatever orbit the customer requires. Launch costs are quoted as less than US$ 6 million for a dedicated launch, lower than any other current launch provider. The initial goal is to support up to fifty launches per year, with the ability to grow to one hundred if demand emerges. This isn’t quite a rocket a day, but it’s a step in that direction.