Mar 25, 2016 | By Alec

It seems like 3D printing is becoming an indispensable and integral part of the Mission to Mars and the aerospace sector in general. Especially NASA and its 3D printing specialist Aerojet Rocketdyne have been working on a very wide range of 3D printed satellites and rocket engines, such as this 3D printed MPS-130 CubeSat Modular Propulsion System, while Space X is no stranger to 3D printing either. But now another competitor has joined the space race, as Rocket Lab has just completed qualification testing for its new Rutherford engine, for which all primary components of the combustor and propellant supply system have been 3D printed.

For those of you who have never heard of Rocket Lab, it’s a relatively small aerospace developer that began work about a decade ago and currently operates two offices: one in Los Angeles and another in New Zealand. Their flagship project is the Electron small launch vehicle, which has been designed to bring satellites into orbit and which should be ready for launch in mid-2016.

But every launch requires a rocket engine, and the Rutherford is what will power the Electron into space. The successful completion of qualification testing, which was just revealed in a brief video, is thus a very important milestone for their Electron. As you can see in the clip below, the Rutherford burned for a full 2 minutes and 40 seconds. But this wasn’t the first test for the 5,000 lbf Rutherford engine, which has been submitted to a very wide range of tests over the past two years. The clip below simply shows the successful completion of more than two hundred engine hot fires.

Nine of these engines will be used, the company reveals, to send the Electron into space. They further argue that it is an important 3D printing milestone as well, as it’s the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use 3D printing for the production of all primary components of the combustor and propellant supply system. “Rutherford also has a unique electric propulsion cycle, making use of high-performance brushless DC electric motors and lithium polymer batteries to drive its turbopumps,” they add.

It will be an interesting launch program, which is set to kick off in a few months and is scheduled to run throughout the second half of 2016 – with a launch site on New Zealand’s North Island as their home base. After using nine Rutherfords during the first stage, a vacuum version of the same engine will be used during the second stage. All in all, it’s supposed to deliver a 150kg payload to a 500km sun-synchronous orbit – the target range for high growth satellites. The engine itself can generate up to 5,000 pounds-force of thrust.

The Rocket Lab team is, obviously, very optimistic. “Rutherford started as a clean sheet of paper. Without the burden of heritage engines, we were able to make the most of today’s most advanced technologies in ways not attempted before,” said Propulsion Lead Lachlan Matchett.

Peter Beck, the company’s CEO, further revealed that preparations are underway to begin manufacturing on multiple Rutherfords. “We are seeing the vehicle come together, and are looking to move to manufacturing at quantity for both our test and commercial flights,” he said. Things are thus moving quickly for Rocket Lab, who believe their Electron will be idea for launching constellations of small satellites into space. They also already have a contract with Spire for up to twelve Electron missions in late 2016. Once again, it seems that not all the aerospace action is taking place at NASA.

 

 

 

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