Rocket Lab’s mission: from Middle Earth to space with the electric Rutherford Engine for US$4.9 million

Peter Beck with Rocket Lab's rocket
Rocket Lab has named its innovative battery-powered rocket engine Rutherford, after NZ’s most famous scientist. Will the Rutherford engine pass its test and make it to orbit, to fulfil Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck’s dream of sending many many satellites into space?

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck thinks “it is pathetic” that there are only 19 space launches per year out of the US. If world space freight depended on existing frequencies, the 'world would go into a hole', he thinks.

There are about 30 weather monitoring satellites in the US for an entire nation, including disaster prediction and climate science. Only 30 and they are all aging: what if there were 3000 satellites up, he wonders.

Beck is out to disrupt that space. Rocket Lab hopes to send satellites into space – as early as this year – using a New Zealand designed and built rocket called Electron, which will bring down the cost of space launch to US$4.9 million from the current cost of US$133 million per launch.

On Wednesday morning NZ time, Beck unveiled his ‘baby’ – his version of space journey done ‘cheaply’ using Electron, the rocket, and powered by the Rutherford engine, another Kiwi innovation. If all goes well, next year, New Zealand would be the 9th nation (and not a super power) to send a rocket into space. It is exciting for Beck to be at the world’s largest congregation of space industry people  – the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. It is even more exciting that he is unveiling some really cool rocket stuff, especially his battery powered engine.

Not fuel propellants but DC motor

The Rutherford engine is different to the conventional rocket propulsion systems as it does not rely on expensive gas for propulsion. Rather than liquid fuels, the engine is powered by high-performance brushless DC electric motors and lithium polymer batteries to drive its turbo pumps.

Beck told Idealog: “Rocket engines conventionally use liquid propellant, pumped at extremely high pressure and high flow rates. What you are doing is burning something in seconds under high propulsion, there is a whole host of problems associated with this system,” he says, including pumps blowing up.

What he has done with the Rutherford engine he says, illustrated in an imagery a layman can understand, is akin to harnessing the power of the average family-size cars into the size of two coke cans.

“What we have done is taken something very complicated and turned it into something tweakable. This is a very disruptive technology for the industry.”

Harnessing 3D printing

The other beauty of the engine is can be 3D printed. All its primary components including its engine chamber, injector, pumps and main propellant valves can be printed using 3D technology.

“If we had approached this using traditional manufacturing technology, it is not going to work. We can launch a rocket a week, that means we can build one engine per week. That’s certainly the goal. We have put manufacturing ability on the top of our design process. The product can be built in NZ, we can do vertical integration, everything in house – from circuit board level to the to flight system.”

Rocket Lab has also found solutions to solve the ease of disconnecting payload integrator (in rocket language, this refers to the cargo/stuff the rocket is sending) from the main booster assembly. This will help prevent potential delays and allows customers to regain control of the integration process, using their own preferred facilities and personnel.

Electron is built completely out of composite carbon, is 20m in length, of 1m diameter and has a lift-off mass of 10,500kg. The vehicle is capable of delivering payloads of up to 100kg to a 500km sun-synchronous orbit, which is the target range for the high growth constellation-satellite market.

All about frequency and cost

Beck says when he started his journey in 2007, he only had one goal in mind - commercialising space travel.

“Over the last couple of years, there has been a massive growth in commercialisation of space as well as the technology behind it. But the issue we are looking at is not about building rockets but reducing the cost (of launches) and increasing launch frequencies.”

What this means is having the ability to put as many satellites into space as possible, to build better imageries of earth, for mapping purposes, for better communication, better weather monitoring, among others.

Nutter, not

People in the financial industry thought Beck was nutter, trying to raise money from Silicon Valley to build a rocket, Beck wrote on Khosla Venture’s website. He revealed that he only approached three companies, one of which was Khosla, whom he has since fallen in love with. “I was looking for someone who sees the vision of doing something really big, not just a pure equity or financial play, someone who shares the dream of making a difference,” he wrote.

Khosla Ventures gave Beck his largest endorsement in 2013. This was followed by a B series investments announced in March this year (completed end of 2014), led by Bessemer Venture Partners, with Sir Stephen Tindall’s K1W1 also in the investors’ list. In addition, Lockheed Martin will also make a strategic investment in the company to support future aerospace technologies. Beck would not say how much funding he has received so far, preferring to keep it confidential.

“When we got KV on board, the New Zealand government also came on board off the back of the financing. Everyone else wanted to be on board, too; it was a stamp of approval, a sign that this is going to happen,” he wrote.

He told Idealog the investments came after years of building capability, and credibility.

Space is now open for business - at Rocket Lab

Admiring Elon

For a little company operating out of the corner of the world, putting the idea of a NZ rocket launch technology to a potential crowd of 11,000 is in Beck’s view something to shout about.

Is he competing directly with the doyen of the space industry Elon Musk? Not quite, Beck, says, adding they are meeting different needs.

“I have a great deal of admiration for Elon. If anybody can get to Mars, it would be Elon. Elon is really responsible for showing the world space travel can be commercially profitable, and possible. He really opened the door for others to enter (the space industry), including ourselves.

“What Elon is doing is different, he is supplying rockets for travel to space stations. What we are after is increasing frequency and reducing the cost of sending satellites to space.”

Pre-signed customers

He adds that Rocket Lab is unusual in that it already has customers pre-signed, ready for its product launch. “In the space industry, this is rare. This says two things: people really believe in what we do, and it shows a real need in the market for us.”

He says companies that have signed up range from communication companies, earth observation to weather observation companies. Rocket Lab plans to announce its New Zealand launch location in mid-2015.

And if Rocket Lab succeeds, Beck reckons New Zealand will be the ninth country to send a rocket to space (not counting North Korea). That makes it a big deal, he adds.