May 24, 2016 | By Alec

Remember Rocket Lab? Two months ago, the New Zealand-based aerospace innovator joined the space race by successfully qualifying their Rutherford engine, for which all of the primary components of the combustion and propellant supply system have been 3D printed. Rocket Lab is now edging closer to their launch later this year after successfully testing the second stage of their rocket engine - the part that completes the launch by taking the payload into orbit.

For those of you who completely missed Rocket Lab, this small aerospace developer has been working on their very own rocket system for about a decade now. They currently operate two offices, one in Los Angeles and another in New Zealand, and have built a launch pad on the New Zealand peninsula of Mahia. Their flagship project is the Electron small launch vehicle, which has been designed to bring satellites into orbit. Numerous crucial parts of the Electron’s engine have ben 3D printed, and it is edging towards its launch date.

As the company chief executive Peter Beck revealed, they have reached several crucial milestones towards their launch already, and the successful test of their second stage rocket engine was a very important step. The second stage test can be seen in the clip below. The Electron, Beck revealed, so far cost nearly $5 million USD to develop, and is scheduled for its first test flight later this year. The Rutherford engine, which weighs nearly 23,000 kg, is now almost complete.

Beck further argued that 3D printing played a crucial role in reaching those milestones. “Our team has successfully pushed the boundaries of many new technologies, including carbon composite flight tanks, electric turbo-pumping and 3D printing. Rutherford also has a unique electric propulsion cycle, making use of high-performance brushless DC electric motors and lithium polymer batteries to drive its turbo-pumps,” he said. “We’re looking forward to bring the whole launch vehicle together for testing soon.”

He went on to argue that the Rutherford engine itself was also a major milestone for 3D printing in general, as it’s the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine that primarily relies on 3D printed parts for its most important components: the combustor and propellant supply system.

Things are thus moving very quickly for Rocket Lab. The company recently also hired its 100th engineer to work on design, testing and construction for the Electron and the Mahia launch site. “Rocket Lab’s engineers are international experts, many of whom have travelled to New Zealand to work on the project. Over a quarter of the program’s engineers have PhDs. Several are graduates from the aerospace PhD program Rocket Lab supports at Canterbury University,” Beck said. “The size of the team has tripled in the last year, and Rocket Lab is currently advertising over more than 30 additional roles based in the research and development facility in Auckland.”

The company is also looking at options for setting up long term manufacturing and maintenance facilities, and the Wairoa District already revealed that they submitted a proposal to the company in an effort to secure the facility. Rocket Lab, however, said that they are still looking into a number of sites and that no decision has been made yet.

But most importantly, the launch is coming closer and closer, and will definitely take place at the launch site on the Mahia Peninsula. An impression of the site can be found here. However, there are still some obstacles to overcome. “There are many moving parts, both technical and regulatory, as well as the significant amount of supporting infrastructure the company is developing — all of these factors impact the launch timeline,” Beck said. But he added that the company is a good position to carry out three tests throughout the second half of the year. Hopefully, the first commercial flight can take place in 2017.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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