Rocket Lab to send Electron on maiden launch
Rocket Lab is set to send its first Electron rocket into space. Officially labeled by the company as “It’s a Test”, the launch will occur at the firm’s private Launch Complex 1 in Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. The company has a 10-day launch window starting at 9:00 a.m. NZST on May 22 (5:00 p.m. EDT / 21:00 GMT on May 21), 2017, to get the vehicle off the ground.
Headquartered out of Huntington Beach, California, Rocket Lab has invested years of work to reach this milestone and begin providing frequent launch opportunities to low-Earth orbit (LEO). Founded in 2006 and privately owned, the company sought a solution for affordable access to LEO and began work on complete rocket systems and technologies allowing for fast and affordable payload deployment.
The Electron rocket is the culmination of work by a small team of engineers and technicians. It stands nearly 56 feet (17 meters) and has a diameter of 4 feet (1.2 meters). Sporting two stages, it is capable of taking a payload of 500 pounds (225 kilograms) to a nominal Sun-synchronous orbit of 310 miles (500 kilometers). How the company achieves those numbers is considered “revolutionary” by the team.
The propulsion utilizes an oxygen and kerosene pump-fed engine using an entirely new propulsion cycle and is referred to as Rutherford. Its unique high-performance electric propellant pumps reduce mass and replace hardware with software, according to their website.
The first stage has a configuration of nine Rutherford engines providing a liftoff thrust of 162 kilonewtons (∼36,400 pounds-force) transitioning into a peak thrust of 192 kilonewtons (∼43,200 pounds-force) allowing a specific impulse (ISP) – the measure of a rocket’s efficiency – of 303 seconds. The second stage employs a variant of the Rutherford, designed for the vacuum of space with specifications of 22 kilonewtons (∼5,000 pounds-force) and an ISP of 333 seconds.
Electron has carbon composite materials not only in the flight structure but also in the tank designs, again reducing weight on the vehicle. On board there are custom cryogenic valves and helium pressurization systems developed in-house, miniaturized avionics, and flight computers, along with 3-D printed primary components for the Rutherford engines. The components are printed in a time of about 24 hours.
Planet Lab founder, CEO, and CTO Peter Beck has sent out a cautionary statement, however, indicating that the company expects multiple scrubs during countdown as the entire system is put through the launch process. Beck said: “As with any new rocket, there are a lot of factors that come together ahead of a test and we’re not going to fly unless we’re ready.”
The rocket went through its first wet rehearsal on Tuesday, May 17, 2017.
With the specified payload, this vehicle is ideal for delivering small satellites into space. CubeSats, for example, are tiny satellites that measure about 3.94 inches (10 centimeters) on each side and are about 2.5 pounds (1 kilogram) per satellite. This translates to a payload of approximately 300 CubeSats per launch for the Electron.
“It’s a Test” will not be carrying any payload but, instead, will be collecting data. In fact, Beck has specified that the 20,000 channels of data will allow Rocket Lab to “learn and iterate”. The company intends to test fly three times before any commercial payload will be packed into its custom all-carbon composite, plug-in payload fairing. The remote location on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand reaches the widest range of orbital azimuths of any launch site globally.
Jerome Strach has worked within the Silicon Valley community for 20 years including software entertainment and film. Along with experience in software engineering, quality assurance, and middle management, he has long been a fan of aerospace and entities within that industry. A voracious reader, a model builder, and student of photography and flight training, most of his spare time can be found focused on launch events and technology advancements including custom mobile app development. Best memory as a child is building and flying Estes rockets with my father. @Romn8tr