Rocket Lab, the Lockheed Martin-funded start up, has revealed their new Rutherford engine. The Rutherford is made up of mostly 3D-printed components, powered by battery and electric turbo pump, and can thrust 4,600 pounds. Powered by a mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen, the engine’s key feature is the use of a battery to power brushless DC motors in the turbo pump. Usually, pressurized gas is used to power a turbine. However, the Rutherford’s innovative electric motor that powers the pump is only the size of a soda can and has approximately 50 horsepower.
The goal of utilizing a battery is to improve performance while lowering the costs. In addition, it is much less complex compared to a conventional gas generator turbo pump. The battery-powered pump is also more easily modified as it can be changed with software. The software takes a significantly complex thermodynamic problem and turns it into a system that can be tweaked infinitely.
Rocket Lab designed the engine to power propulsion for their Electron rocket, which is a 20-meter rocket made out of carbon composites. The rocket is relatively lightweight and can deliver payloads of 100kg to a 500km sun-synchronous orbit or 400kg payloads to lower Earth orbits. Rocket Lab hopes to launch up to 100 payloads a year from New Zealand at a price of $4.9 million per launch. With the Rutherford engine complete, Rocket Lab is preparing for the first launch of Electron by the end of this year.
Headquartered in Auckland, New Zealand, Rocket Lab Ltd. designs and fabricates sounding rockets, small satellite launch systems, and propulsions systems. In 2010, the company was awarded a contract by the United States Operationally Responsive Space Office to study a low cost space launcher for sending nano-satellites into orbit. Since then, Rocket Lab has received continuous funding for research in space systems.
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