Rocket Lab, a sounding rocket and launch vehicle company co-located in the U.S. and New Zealand, is preparing to begin testing a smallsat launcher dubbed Electron that would use battery-powered turbomachinery and other innovations to hold the cost per mission below $5 million.
The company, which received U.S. Defense Department funding before branching into commercial development, unveiled its Rutherford engine at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. The engine uses high-performance brushless DC electric motors to drive its liquid oxygen and kerosene turbomachinery, drawing power from lithium polymer batteries. The approach, says CEO Peter Beck, eliminates the complex valves and other plumbing required to use hot gas to turn turbomachinery, boosting efficiency from 50% for a typical gas generator cycle to 95%.
“For us it was really about decoupling that thermodynamic problem,” Beck says. “And the beauty with an electric turbopump is that it takes that really complicated problem and turns it into software.”