Rutherford, Electron and RocketLab –  A Brief

Introduction

Electron, the small satellite launch vehicle, might most probably have made history this May with its first successful launch with a mostly 3D printed rocket engine. However, the maiden launch simply named “It’s a test” – they impressively named their electric turbo-pumped liquid engine Rutherford – had to be aborted after four minutes into the launch due to loss of communication with the ground command.

They weren’t sure initially whether it reached the Karman Line (the widely accepted altitude of 100 Km at which space begins though not acknowledged in any of the international space treaties), but confirm it crossed the 224 Km height upon analysing the flight data recently. This article gives further details on how a mis-configuration of the third-party ground equipment software resulted in a signal loss that lead to the abortion of the flight.

Technical Brief

One amongst dozens of NewSpace launchers, most of them by US based companies and many designed for small satellites, Electron nevertheless stands out on several fronts such as

(Check out their Payload User Guide for a much detailed technical overview)

Electron – Overall Specs

  • Size It’s the smallest launcher (H = 17 m, D = 1.2 m) – historically and in comparison with LVs in development so far.
  • Design
    • Like most NewSpace launchers, Electron uses one single engine design for both its stages (9 Rutherford engines for Stage-1 and 1 for Stage-2). The salient point is each Rutherford (pardon the rhetoric, I’m fascinated by its very apt name) can be 3D printed in 24 hours!
    • The Rutherford engine uses an electric engine comprising a DC brushless motor and a LiPo battery that pumps LOx and RP into the combustion chamber. RocketLabs claims these turbo pumps to be 95% efficient while the standard gas-generator cycle engines are only 50% efficient.

In-house design and manufacture of carbon composite propellant tanks, the avionics, valves, pressurization systems.

It’s a pity that the only outsourced ground equipment was what spoiled the “It’s a test” while all the other indigenously made systems performed flawlessly. Even more surprising when one finds out that the state-owned Alaska Aerospace Corporation seems to be the independent contractor who supplied Range Safety and Telemetry System (RSTS) and personnel for the launch. Digging deeper, this RSTS is designed by Honeywell Inc,. the globally renowned supplier of aerospace and defense electronic equipment!

Payload Integration is completely decoupled from the main assembly and they provide customers the option to integrate their payloads with a plug-in payload module independently at their own facility and personnel. This plug-in payload module will then be brought to the RocketLab’s integration facility to be plugged into the Electron.

Suave! This way the customer doesn’t incur the costs of sending their personnel over to the launcher integration site. Team Electron will have to do the travelling, but since it’s going to be the same set of people and an established procedure, the travel will cost them much less, financially and temporally.

First launch from a fully commercial launch site – Mahia Peninsula, NZ. This location has the advantage of being able to support the launch of SSO flights with desired inclinations from 39 deg to 98 deg. Also given its low interaction with standard aviation routes, can support 100 flights per year or one flight per 72 hours!

This launch frequency might seem superfluous at first but one must consider the 9000 satellites, most of them around the 100 Kg range, that are expected to be launched by 2025!

Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, Mahia, NZ

The launch facilities Cape Canaveral, Florida and Pacific Spaceport Complex, Alaska located in the USA will be used for US customer launches.

Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA

Pacific Spaceport Complex, Alaska, USA

Very Brief History

RocketLab was established in 2006, almost during the same time as that of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. It is now headquartered in LA (USA) and has a wholly-owned subsidiary (independent legal entity) in New Zealand. Their first big operation was the launch of a sounding rocket Atea-1 in 2009 from NZ, which was speculated to have reached an altitude of 150 Km but wasn’t actually measured.

Launch of Atea-1

In 2010 they won the U.S. federal government Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS) contract to develop an on-demand dedicated small satellite launcher and in 2015 the $6.9 M NASA contract. The development of Electron began in 2012. The indigenous systems of Electron must have taken root during the development of Atea-1 itself since the latter also housed in-house developed avionics package, power supply and payload recovery systems.

Market

The most captivating aspect about their website, much more than their aesthetic design and color scheme, is the apparent ease felt by a customer in booking a launch. It obviously doesn’t lead to an online payment gateway upon selecting the launch slot and mass (er… launching state liability for starters?) but impresses upon any visitor perusing the site that Space is indeed open for Business.

NASA, Spire, Planet and even the Google Lunar X-Prize contender Moon Express are listed as the customers. Only last week, the latter ambitious venture might have been in doldrums after the failed first launch of Electron. However, after the latest deadline extension for the GLXP to March 2018 and given the scheduled second launch attempt of Electron by the end of this year and especially after RocketLab confirmed it was only a software configuration glitch that caused the earlier failure, Moon Express stands a fairer chance.

Here is a nice article speculating on the GLXP’s active contenders. But it’s not updated after the recent deadline extension.

Electron – Payload to SSO Altitude

Charging about $4.9 M per launch (nominal 150 Kg to 500 Km SSO), one can be tempted to calculate the per Kg cost which will be $32K /kg. This seems a lot compared to the per/Kg costs similarly computed from SpaceX’s pricing scheme – $2700 /Kg (Falcon 9) and $1400 /Kg (Falcon Heavy). However, it should be strongly noted that cost of access to space cannot be computed by a simple division of the payload mass by the launch cost. While the Electron is a small satellite launcher, the Falcons are in the 20T and 60T range to LEO and even beyond, till the Mars orbit, albeit with lesser payload capability. The relationship between the launch cost and payload mass is certainly not linear.

Moreover, opportunity costs also play a big role for customers while deciding upon a launcher for their satellites. For instance, let’s consider a customer looking to test their payload on a 3U cubesat. Let us further consider 3 launch options.

Option 1 costs $295K with Spaceflight, a global launch aggregator

Option 2 costs $240K with RocketLab

Option 3 costs $135K with ISRO’s PSLV

While Options 1 & 3 usually offer ride-shares with larger satellites with launches every quarter, Option 2 can potentially provide a launch opportunity every three days. Moreover, the orbits and orbit precision will be more suited for the primary bigger satellite while the requirements of cubesats and small satellites will be slightly different. Therefore, a commercial customer would most likely opt for Option 2 while a customer from the academia with severe budget constraints will opt for the cheapest. Even though Option 3 is the most reliable, Option 2 will soon catch-up given its insane launch frequency.

Legal Overview

Even though the US has a robust domestic space law infrastructure the space legal environment of NZ has to be considered given its role as the launching state for all launches from the Mahia Peninsula, NZ. While NZ signed and ratified the Outer Space Treaty (1967), the Rescue Agreement (1968), the Liability Convention (1972), it has not signed (and of course not ratified) the Registration Convention (1976).

However, the New Zealand Space Agency (NZSA) was formed in 2016 under the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Its purpose is to regulate, support and enable space activities of NZ while also formulating the policy and strategy around space activities. An Outer Space and High Altitude Activities Bill was also proposed in 2016 to take care of authorizations, licensing and liability of all space activities. The Civil Aviation Authority is currently the authority for granting licenses and authorizations of space launches.

 

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