Rocket Lab joins the orbital club

in #space4 years ago (edited)

electron - Launch + logo.png

On January 21st, the small startup rocket company, Rocket Lab joined an elite club that managed to put a rocket in low Earth orbit (LEO). They achieved this in only their second try, dubbed Still Testing. Their first attempt was back in May of last year, when the rocket performed nominally, but due to a third-party tracking and communications error, it failed to achieve orbit. This launch was originally scheduled for December of last year, but due to weather they had to scrub the launch multiple times; I tried to cover it back then, too, if you wish, you can read my original post, here.

Their maiden orbital flight occurred from Mahia, New Zealand, where the company constructed a small launchpad. The location offers them great versatility, as they can launch both in a polar orbit towards the south pole, or they can launch east for an inclined or equatorial orbit. In either case, they launch over the ocean, thus not endangering humans.

Thus, they finally launched their very own launch vehicle, called Electron, build mostly of carbon composites, including the fuel tanks, giving it its naturally black colour. It is one of the smallest rockets in existence, measuring just about 17 meters tall, but can carry small payloads of a maximum, but respectable weight of 250 kilograms to LEO. For its first stage, it uses 9 Rutherford engines which generate a maximum of 192kN of thrust in total, with an ISP (think of it as efficiency) of 303 seconds, better even than the SpaceX Merlin engines. They were designed in house, and are 3D printed, lowering costs.

For the second stage, they use a single vacuum optimized variant of the Rutherford engine with a larger bell. This provides the second stage with a thrust of 22kN and an ISP of 333 seconds. This great efficiency is achieved by using an electric turbo-pump, instead of a propellant-driven one. This minimizes fuel loss, but the vehicle needs to carry batteries to power these pumps. They are not light and drain quickly, so this becomes a balancing act, between a longer burn and heavy batteries for their rocket, and shorter burns, but no batteries need for regular rockets.

Rocket Lab have found a compromise, however, by carrying two sets of batteries; the first one is dumped into the atmosphere to burn up, before achieving orbit, as soon as they are depleted, while the second one is engaged to power the pump for the rest of the flight. This event was dubbed a hot swap, and can be viewed in the .gif to the right, and ensures a greater efficiency throughout.

All this being said, the small company is the first to achieve orbit of a light launcher, even while competing with Vector Space Systems and behemoths, such as Virgin Orbit. These small vehicles are designed to service cubesats, which generally hitch a ride on larger rockets as secondary payloads for larger spacecraft. This causes the operating companies to compromise on their final destination orbit. But here is a small startup to offer these clients a dedicated solution to this issue, charging only $4.9 million for a launch. In this case, it launched a Dove satellite, part of a constellation by company Planet, which aims to map the whole Earth every day, and two more Lemur-2 cubesats, by company Spire Global, also part of a constellation that monitors weather and ship traffic.

With this successful launch, I congratulate Rocket Lab for achieving such a great milestone on a budged of just around $100 million, and wish them luck with their partnership with Moon Express, a small startup which aims to put three micro-landers on the moon. This would make the Electron rocket the smallest vehicle to do such a feat.

All gifs are from the livestreamed launched, which you can watch in full, below!

What are your thoughts on this historic launch? Do you think there is a market for small launcher, going against the major companies, such as ULA or Arianespace, who believe that such a market does not exist, at least not yet? Share your opinions below, along with any feedback you might have. It is greatly appreciated!


Thank you for reading, and keep on steemin'!

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Hey @sebi99p I am a curator from the Whaleshares Curation Team. I have selected your post to be presented in a live curation discussion on Monday 22th January. Your post will be awarded with a 100 Whaleshares vote on the night. I do hope you can come along and spectate. The event will be held in The Curation Lounge on the Whaleshares server. Here's a link which explains things: https://steemit.com/steemit/@nikflossus/the-whaleshares-curation-show-monday-night-featuring-gabchik

Sure thing. At what time?

EDIT: Nevermind, I looked at the post. Hopefully I'll join in, if I don't fall asleep. You start at 2AM, my time.

Hi, I found some acronyms/abbreviations in this post. This is how they expand:

AcronymExplanation
LEOLow Earth Orbit (180-2000km),Law Enforcement Officer (most often mentioned during transport operations)
ULAUnited Launch Alliance (Lockheed/Boeing joint venture)
scrubLaunch postponement for any reason (commonly GSE issues)
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