Rutherford, Electron and RocketLab –  A Brief


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.


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.


NewSpace Ventures – On Trends, Legalities, Ecosystem

I’ve recently stumbled upon a nook of cyberspace aptly named NewSpace Ventures, where space geeks can share and discuss all things NewSpace. Access to its archive of NewSpace companies is provided upon subscription while entry into its private slack channel is invite-only.

On a personal note, the first email from NSV after signup was quite a revelation for me. The archive listed more than a hundred companies spread over 20 countries and offering a myriad of products and services in, for and through Space. I already did have a notion that the global space industry has been rapidly growing, but scrolling through the archive was what made me fathom the scale and potential.

Few of the services offered were beyond my imagination! For instance, the US based Elysium Space offers to turn a loved one’s remains into a shooting star at an interestingly affordable price of $2490. The average North American traditional funeral costs between $7,000 and $10,000

Begin of a short whimsical detour…
Let’s now try to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations around this obviously affordable price. As per the pricelist provided by its launch and mission management services provider Spaceflight (another US based NS company), the launch cost for a 3U cubesat of mass 5 Kg is about $295k. Let’s assume that Elysium would place the remains of several clients in a single satellite which, from the images on its website, appears to be a 3U cubesat. The memorial service also includes the collection of sample, printing of initials & a message, invitation to launch, launch event video, a certificate and also a tracking app whose cost can be considered negligible and ignored for simplicity. Placing about 120 remains on a single satellite would result in a break-even.

A 3U cubesat would weigh less than 4 Kg and at break-even, the 120 ash capsules should together weigh 1 Kg and thereby each about 8g. Of course, the capsules must be much lighter for Eysium to make profits, because we haven’t accounted for the orbit maintenance and re-entry maneuvres. Celestis is another US based company offering a similar memorial service.
End of the whimsical detour.

This daily growing archive lists 329 NewSpace companies as of today. Of them, 155 are from the United States with Germany, Netherlands, Canada, Spain and India contributing more than 10 companies each. Turkey, Malaysia, South Africa, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Austria also each house a couple of private space companies.

After its Türksat 1B in 1994, Turkey now owns several communication and earth observation reconnaissance satellites which were all launched using Chinese, Russian and European launchers, but formation of the Turkish Space Agency is still amidst political turmoil. Here is a nice article on the current space scene in Turkey. The National Space Agency of Malaysia (ANGKASA) was formed in 2002 before which its GEO communication satellites MEASAT-1 & MEASAT-2 designed and built by Boeing were already launched in 1996. Its first microsatellite Tiung SAT developed through technology transfer support from SSTL, UK was already launched in 2000 on the Ukrainean Dnepr. Sunsat-1 was South Africa’s first (university) satellite launched using US rocket in 1999. Read here about a nano-satellite made by SA private industry to be launched from the ISS next year, as part of a European Commission research project.

Evidently, many countries that don’t possess and cannot afford to develop launch capability are slowly but steadily and certainly gaining capability of satellite manufacturing. An important observation is that, most of these countries such as Turkey, Malaysia, South Africa are involving their respective domestic industries to a significant extent in their satellite programs. Given the involvement of globally established satellite makers such as Boeing, SSTL in the form of collaborations and tech transfers, the private industry of these countries is straight away leapfrogging into the latest technology in building satellite components and even complete satellites. Thereby, they can soon gain global competence and can aim to develop and market satellite components and sub-systems. Moreover, if their respective space agencies offer to provide or give subsidized access to satellite AIT facilities which form the major cost in satellite making, these companies will further benefit in terms of cost competitiveness. On the other hand, the private companies of countries such as India that have only been component suppliers for the last five decades will have a disadvantage unless they make their own efforts towards gaining international competence. Given the recent satellite AIT contract to Indian industry consortium and the privatization of PSLV, the Indian industry will now be able to participate at the systems level, but it is already several decades late already. Companies such as Data Patterns, Cyient, Aniara, Centum Electronics, Ananth Technologies and the giants L&T (An overview of L&T – ISRO partnership here), Godrej & Boyce, Tata Motors, Walchandnagar in the spacecraft and launch vehicle domains have been around for decades and some since the inception of the Indian space program. Their major customer in space has always been ISRO and there is no end to end manufacturer of satellites or launch vehicles amongst them. Of course, satellite manufacturing only accounts for  less than 5% of the total space revenues as given in the following chart.

Source: State of the Satellite Industry Report (September 2016)

Obviously, given the small margins, satellite manufacturing can only be lucrative with large volumes. Similarly the revenues from the launch industry are less than 2% of the total space revenues. Therefore, it can be argued that the Indian industries might not have found much value in these areas. However, there is not much business activity from these companies even in the high revenue areas of satellite services and non-satellite industry (human spaceflight, non-orbital spacecraft, government spending). I have summarised the latest issues surrounding the Indian Satcom Scene in this article.

In the least revenue fetching segment of launch vehicles, the NSV lists about 30 companies and another 16 under propulsion which includes satellite propulsion as well. Most of these companies are again from the United States.

About 99% of these companies are currently alive, in that their websites are functional. However, there is no idea how one can attempt to envisage their future. Of course, patents and technology are the main ingredients for their success, but I believe the location of the company plays an equally important role. For a casual space enthusiast checking out the NSV archive, knowing the location would suffice. A company in the US obviously has great chances of procuring funding given its ample VC and HNI money compared to a company in say Ukraine. However, an industry analyst or a serious researcher or a potential investor might prefer to know more details. Towards providing this additional insights, I have taken up the task of including the national legislation relevant to the company’s area of operations in the NSV archive. In the absence of a national law, the applicable international law is mentioned.

A reader might now wonder about

  1. The companies which offer diverse products/services
    Most are early stage startups and operate in a single domain. For instance, Berlin Space Technologies is a Berlin based company offering reliable and cost efficient solutions for high resolution earth observation. They provide small satellite systems, payloads and ground equipment whose sale is regulated by the Foreign Trade and Payments Act of Germany. The apparently diverse range of operations is usually regulated by a single regulation. Similarly Thrustme of France specialises in nano-satellite ion-propulsion and precision attitude control which is regulated under the French Arms Export Control System. If a company in some future time does span across multiple domains, then the company can be listed multiple times.
  2. The companies which might pivot
    Companies don’t pivot overnight and usually at a frequency low enough to allow updation of the archive in time
  3. Updates/Changes in legislation
    Again, legislations don’t get made or updated overnight and usually at a frequency low enough to allow updation of the archive in time

Conducive regulatory environment certainly has a say in the success of a company and in contributing towards its global competence. Especially in the high-tech sector of space with high entry barriers in terms of technology, capital and most times UN/EU/State sanctions given its dual-use nature, these companies often need more than legal clarity alone. Government hand-holding through incubation centers, dedicated (space) SME funds, technology transfers, help in achieving global competitiveness by sustaining them through innovation cycles and offering buyback incentives are few such mechanisms, the information on which I will soon add to the NSV archive.