RUser-friendliness is key to 21st century spaceflight, with many launch vendors now striving to make their rockets as recyclable as possible. California-based Rocket Lab is ready to take a big step in that direction by installing a former 3D printed engine on its Electron rocket.
To date, some 350 Rutherford engines built by Rocket Lab have gone into space, but none returned for a second pass in low Earth orbit. That could change later this year, as the private space company aims to re-drive a Rutherford engine that went in space during Rocket Lab’s There and Back Again mission in May 2022, the company announcement today in a press release. This has never been done before for a 3D printed engine, so Rocket Lab could make history with the launch, slated for the third quarter of this year.
It’s all part of the company’s plan to make its small-lift Electron rocket more reusable. “By transforming it into a reusable launch vehicle, we plan to further increase our already steadily increasing launch rate, providing more launch availability to our customers at a time when access to space is severely limited at the moment. scale,” said Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck. statement.
Launched in 2017, Rutherford is the world’s first 3D printed rocket engine. Nine of these kerosene-fueled engines power Electron’s first stage, each of them exerting 5,500 pounds (2,495 kilograms) of thrust, allowing the rocket to deliver 660 pounds (330 kg) into low Earth orbit. A single Rutherford, vacuum compatible, powers Electron’s second stage.
Following its recovery in May 2022, the chosen Rutherford engine underwent extensive testing for recertification, including multiple hot-firing tests over the duration of the mission, during which it performed “on par” with Rutherford engines. unpiloted, according to Rocket Lab. The engine is ready to run, but it won’t fly until later this year due to the newly built engines already shelved and integrated for future missions.
Electron boosters are not capable of autonomous vertical landings à la SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Instead, these boosters are picked up with ships after soft parachute landings in the ocean, usually off New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. Rocket Lab has completed six such ocean recoveries to date.
“Reusing small rockets is extremely difficult because they simply don’t have the fuel margins that larger rockets have to provide propellant landing,” Beck said. “Despite this significant technical hurdle, our team brought relentless innovation to our reuse program and proved it was possible to bring small rockets home and keep the engines running like new.”
The company originally wanted to use helicopters to catch the boosters during the descent, but these operations proved difficult. Additionally, the company learned that water landings do not damage boosters. The company said in its statement“Extensive analysis of the returned stages shows that Electron is resistant to an ocean splash and engineers expect future complete stages to pass qualification and acceptance testing for re-flight with a retrofit minimal.” As a result, Rocket Lab is abandoning the concept of helicopter recovery in favor of ship-assisted rescues.
Related article: Rocket Lab Helicopter Catches Falling Rocket Booster, Then Drops It
Rocket Lab’s There And Back Again mission featured the first attempt at an airborne helicopter capture of a return booster. The pilots successfully snagged the parachute line, but chose to let go after noticing different load characteristics than seen on previous test flights. The helicopter hiccup didn’t work out as planned, but Rocket Lab can take comfort in knowing that one of its salvaged engines could return to the cold vacuum that is space.