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The Battery-Powered, 3D-Printed Rocket Engine Designed for Weekly Trips to Space

Rocket Lab is a small commercial space travel company that wants to take constellation of satellites to space.
April 16, 2015, 9:00am

​You can design the coolest rocketship in the world, but it's not going to get very far without an engine. So a company that is hoping to start doing weekly launches to set up constellations of satellites better have some solid engine game.

On Tuesday, US and New Zealand-based commercial spaceflight company Rocket Lab Ltd unveiled its new engine: a lightweight, battery-powered, mostly-3D-printed beauty that Rocket Lab says will enable it to launch rockets for just $5 million a pop, eventually on a weekly basis.

The Rutherford engine. Image: Rocket Lab

When it comes to commercial spaceflight, $5 million per launch is a bargain. United Launch Alliance—the company attemptin​g to persuade Congress to let it keep its exclusive US government contracts—says its launches cost an average of $164 million each. SpaceX prices its average launch at $60 million.

The main difference is that Rocket Lab's vehicle (the Electron rocket) is designed only to carry lightweight payloads, such as miniature satellites called cubesats, while ULA and SpaceX hope to eventually carry much heavier cargo: people. But it's still a poignant example of how a more competitive commercial market will drive down the cost of going to space.

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One big component of that market is figuring out how to build better and cheaper engines. Right now ULA sources its RD-180 engines from Russia, which caused a few problems after Russia decided to cut off the futu​re supply. SpaceX builds its own engines, though its still testing a lot of its technology, which has been hit a​nd miss. There's no question the future of commercial space travel will rely heavily on better engine technology.

Rocket Lab's engine, which it has dubbed the Rutherford, makes a few modifications to traditional engines. For one, it uses a battery-powered pump rather than a gas-generator-powered turbopump (the part of the engine that forces fuel and an oxidizing agent into the combustion chamber).

Running on a battery allows Rocket Lab to eliminate the need to have a separate engine spinning the turbine which runs the pump, CEO Peter Beck said in a phone interview Wednesday. It makes for a much simpler design and a lighter engine.

Rocket Lab also uses 3D printing to produce most of the engine parts.

"It's a way to produce extremely complicated parts in a very cost-effective and timely manner," Beck said. "It also gives us the ability to iterate very, very quickly. We can go through five iterations of a part design in the space of a week compared to a month."

With the engine design completed, Rocket Lab is gearing up to do some test launches by the end of this year, Beck told me, and hopes to have its first commercial launches by mid-2016. While the company is small (Beck says about 70 employees work for Rocket Lab right now, though they're hiring new people every week), Beck says they've managed to carve out a much-needed niche. Everyone from Google to Virgin G​roup has plans to build entire constellations of small satellites over the next few years, and Beck wants Rocket Lab to be the company to take them into orbit.

"If you can build constellations of small satellites at fast enough and an affordable enough pace, then you can really create some amazing space infrastructure," he said. "We very much see ourselves as the enabler to building that critical mass of space infrastructure."