Jan 22, 2018 | By Benedict

Aerospace manufacturer Rocket Lab has launched its Electron rocket, complete with 3D printed engines, from its private New Zealand launch pad. The rocket reached orbit on Sunday, delivering three small satellites on behalf of Planet and Spire Global.

In some respects, the launching of three small satellites into Earth orbit is no big deal: it’s not the first time it has happened, and certainly won’t be the last. But for Rocket Lab, a private US company with a subsidiary in New Zealand, the recent launch of its Electron rocket marked a world first: the first time a company has launched multiple satellites from its own private space pad.

The milestone is exciting for the global aerospace industry because, until now, those responsible for launching space craft have generally operated under the eyes of the government, using government infrastructure. Government-run facilities such as Cape Canaveral are often used for such launches.

For Rocket Lab, however, the successful Electron launch from an 8,000-acre sheep and cattle farm on New Zealand’s North Island shows low-cost rockets can now be built—using technologies like 3D printing—to send small payloads into space.

“Today marks the beginning of a new era in commercial access to space,” commented Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck. “Reaching orbit on a second test flight is significant on its own, but successfully deploying customer payloads so early in a new rocket program is almost unprecedented.”

The Electron rocket, which is made of a lightweight carbon composite, contains many elements 3D printed using Electron Beam Melting technology. Its engine chamber, injector, turbopumps, and main propellant valves are all 3D printed to reduce weight while maintaining strength in the Rutherford engines.

The rocket is 17 meters long, which is around a quarter the size of the Falcon 9 rocket from Elon Musk’s rival company SpaceX. That size makes a difference in cost: each Rocket Lab launch costs around $5 million, whereas a SpaceX launch costs around $62 million.

That affordability means Rocket Lab is now able to carry out launches with some degree of regularity. This was actually the second Electron test flight, following another in May 2017, when the rocket was unable to  reach lower earth orbit because of a technical fault. A third launch will follow later this year.

Ultimately, the company hopes the success of its test launch, which was officially called “Still Testing,” will open up new opportunities in space. “Rocket Lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it,” Beck added. “Today we took a significant step towards that.”

The three miniature satellites deployed by the Electron rocket, each around the size of a shoebox, will map the Earth’s surface and be used for weather and shipping systems. They were built by US satellite companies Planet and Spire Global, and launched from the rocket eight minutes and 31 seconds after lift-off.

Over the coming weeks, Rocket Lab engineers will analyse the data from the launch in order to improve future launches—of which there will be many. The company currently has five Electron vehicles in production; when at full production, it expects to launch more than 50 times a year, and is already regulated to launch up to 120 times a year, which is more than any other commercial or government launch provider in history.

Future Rocket Lab customers will include NASA, Spire, Planet, Moon Express, and Spaceflight.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Phil Morling wrote at 1/24/2018 4:20:40 AM:

At last we might get the low orbit based communications system that was talked about 2 decades ago. You can probably guess I live in a terrain 'hole' with no phone signal

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