The Electron's engine has a print time of 24 hours © Rocket Lab
The Electron's engine has a print time of 24 hours © Rocket Lab

Rocket to use 3D printed engine

6 June 2017

A low-cost rocket has been launched in New Zealand using the first 3D printed engine.

The Electron rocket, built by Rocket Lab, is designed to be able to launch more often and more cheaply than rivals.

“Rutherford is the first oxygen/kerosene engine to use 3D printing for all primary components,” said Rocket Lab. It said the “engine print time” was 24 hours.

The rocket, launched from a private site on the Mahia Peninsula, reached space but did not enter into orbit as intended.

“It was a great flight,” said Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab. “We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why.

“However, reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our programme, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business.”

The launch had been delayed three times by bad weather.

Beck said other parts of the rocket’s first flight – such as its first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing separation – went well.

Once it enters into full production Rocket Lab expects to launch more than 50 times a year from New Zealand, and is regulated to launch up to 120 times a year.

By comparison there were 22 launches last year from the USt and 82 internationally.

New Zealand has set up its own space agency and created its own rockets and legislation in anticipation of becoming a low-cost space hub.

In the US busy commercial airways mean air traffic needs to be rerouted every time a rocket is launched, limiting commercial use of space facilities.

But the skies above New Zealand are relatively quiet and it has only Antarctica to its south.

Rocket Lab’s engineers in Los Angeles and Auckland now have to work through the 25,000 data channels that were collected during the launch to help optimise further flights.

“We’re committed to making space accessible and this is a phenomenal milestone in that journey,” Beck added.

“The applications doing this will open up are endless. Known applications include improved weather reporting, internet from space, natural disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data as well as search and rescue services.”

Rocket Lab is planning three more test flights this year. It said it has already signed up customers including NASA, Spire, Planet, Moon Express and Spaceflight.

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