As reported by stuff.co.nz, New Zealand space company Rocket Lab has reached a major milestone in its quest to launch commercial satellites into orbit.
The Auckland-based Rocket Lab has successfully tested the second stage of its Electron rocket, an 18 meter tall launch vehicle that is designed to send satellites into orbit for as little as US$50,000 (NZ$74,100). The company had also qualified its 3D-printed engines, called Rutherford, which drive the rocket.
Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said the Electron rocket's launch weight was made up of 90 percent fuel. He added that the Electron was a two stage launch vehicle—the first stage being the engine which had nine Rutherford engines and took the rocket to the edge of the Earth's atmosphere.
The second stage had one Rutherford engine which took the satellite beyond the atmosphere and into orbit, Beck said, propelling this stage for five minutes.
This was the first time 3D-printed rocket engines had been qualified for flight, he said. The second stage contained the most complexity of the rocket with guidance systems and flight computers. The two stages detach at an altitude of about 60 kilometers while travelling at about six times the speed of sound.When the first stage detached, the second stage accelerated from travelling at six times the speed of sound to 25 times the speed of sound.
All 10 engines on the rocket were fueled with liquid oxygen and a special type of kerosene. About 15 tons of propellant was carried on board and the rocket reached orbit in eight minutes.
The next goal was to then get the first stage qualified. This required its nine engines firing together and ensuring of all the functions were performing as intended. The stages would then be integrated and testing would begin for the Electron's launch program.
Rocket Lab's private launch site would be on the Mahia Peninsula on the East Coast south of Gisborne. The company also recently reached another milestone in hiring its 100th rocket scientist at its research and development facility near Auckland International Airport. More than a quarter of Rocket Lab's engineers have PhDs and the engineer team features international experts, many of whom had travelled to New Zealand to work on the project. Some of the engineers had worked for NASA, the European Space Agency and international satellite launch companies. The size of the team had tripled in the past year and Rocket Lab was advertising for more than 30 additional jobs in Auckland.
Founded in New Zealand, Rocket Lab is a privately funded US corporation with offices in Auckland and the United States. Major investors include Khosla Ventures, Sir Stephen Tindall's K1W1 investment fund, Bessemer Venture Partners and Lockheed Martin.