Add “rocket” to the list of things you can print with a 3D printer. Space company Rocket Lab revealed the Rutherford engine, made from parts created in a 3D printer. Capable of 4,600 pounds of thrust, the engine will power both stages of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. a 20-meter (66-foot) rocket made out of carbon composites.
In addition to 3D-printed parts, the Rutherford engine also has a completely new propulsion system, using brushless DC motors and high performance Lithium Polymer batteries to drive its turbo pumps, according to Rocket Lab. Turbopumps propel fuel into the combustion chamber of a rocket engine at the correct flow rate and pressure. Usually, pressurized gas is used to power a turbine, a process which is usually coupled to the combustion, making the inside of the engine tightly coupled. This also creates challenging engineering problems when it comes to the thermodynamics of propulsion. “Using brushless DC motors and lithium battery cells, Rutherford’s turbopumps decouple the thermodynamic problem immediately,” said Rocket Lab’s founder Peter Beck. “We’re able to do things never capable before in a propulsion system. It takes complex piece of machinery and makes it simple.”
The rocket will be able to deliver 100 kg payloads to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit or 400 kg payloads to lower Earth orbits, according to the Beck. The company’s goal is to begin a schedule next year that would allow them to launch as many as 100 payloads per year from their launch pad in New Zealand, at a price of just $4.9 million per launch.
The Rutherford, which is named after NZ-born physicist Ernest Rutherford, was designed to help Rocket Lab reach their main goals of reducing the cost of space flight while increasing the frequency with which payloads can be launched into space, Beck said. With this in mind, the company looked for ways to mass produce rockets faster. 3D printing is faster and the carbon composite body is perfect for molding.
A rocket typically takes months to build. With 3D printing, a rocket can be completed in three days, Beck said. Rocket Lab plans to start testing the rocket later this year and, if all goes well, will start commercial launches in 2016.
Images via Rocket Lab