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Electron Launcher of Rocket Lab

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Rocket Lab is a US aerospace company with HQs in Los Angeles, CA, with a wholly owned New Zealand subsidiary. The company aims to develop low-mass, cost-effective commercial rocket launch services. The Electron Program was founded on the premise that small payloads such as CubeSats require dedicated small launch vehicles and flexibility not currently offered by traditional rocket systems. Rocket Lab's mission is to remove the barriers to commercial space by providing frequent launch opportunities to LEO (Low Earth Orbit). 1) 2) 3)

Some background:

Rocket Lab was founded and incorporated in 2006 by New Zealander Peter Beck, the company's CEO (Chief Executive Officer) and CTO (Chief Technical Officer). Internet entrepreneur and fellow New Zealander Mark Rocket was the seed investor and co-director from 2007 to 2011.

Rocket Lab was started in Auckland by New Zealander Peter Beck. In 2013, the company began expanding globally and established its headquarters in Los Angeles. Operations in Auckland continue to support the private orbital launch site Rocket Lab is currently constructing on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula. The Mahia launch site reaches the widest range of orbital azimuths of any launch site globally, and its remote location will enable rocket launches at an unprecedented frequency. 4)

The company has a rich history of developing propulsion systems and launch vehicles for a multitude of government and commercial customers. Rocket Lab has successfully launched over 80 sounding rockets and in 2009 became the first private company to reach space from the Southern Hemisphere.

The first launch of the Ātea-1 (Māori for 'space') suborbital sounding rocket occurred in late 2009. The 6 m long rocket with a mass of 60 kg was designed to carry a 2 kg payload to an altitude of 120 km. It was intended to carry scientific payloads or possibly personal items. Ātea-1 was successfully launched from Great Mercury Island (New Zealand) near the Coromandel Peninsula on 30 November 2009. The rocket was tracked by GPS uplink to the Inmarsat-B communications satellite, which permitted verification of payload apogee above the Kármán line; it touched down approximately 50 km downrange.

In 2013, the company began development of the two-stage Electron orbital rocket, designed to orbit small (or "mini") satellites. The effort included development of the Rutherford engine, named for the New Zealand-born British physicist Ernest Rutherford, to power Electron. Rutherford used brushless DC motors powered by lithium polymer batteries to power its turbopump, replacing the usual gas generator. Rocket Lab announced its Electron plans to the world in 2015. NASA awarded the company a Venture Class Launch Services contract on October 31, 2015. 5)

Electron Stage Testing: Electron was designed to orbit small satellites for about $4.9 million per mission. The design adopted innovative carbon composite tanks to hold both the kerosene fuel and the cryogenic liquid oxygen oxidizer. Nine Rutherford engines, each producing 1.739 tons of sea-level thrust at a 303 second vacuum specific impulse, powered the first stage. A single Rutherford Vacuum Engine powered the second stage, producing 2.268 tons thrust at a 333 second specific impulse.

Electron has a mass of 12.55 tons at liftoff, rising on 15.65 tons of thrust. It is 1.2 m in diameter and stands stand 17 m tall. Its first stage is 12.1 m tall, the second stage 2.4 m, and the payload fairing is 2.5 m in length. The rocket is designed to lift 150 kg payloads to a 500 km sun-synchronous orbit.

After the company sought and received U.S. capital, it established headquarters in Los Angeles, California and announced plans for some manufacturing to be done in the U.S. As the first launch approached, however, production, testing, and engineering remained in Auckland, New Zealand, and a single launch site had been built on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand's North Island. The launch site was completed on September 27, 2016.

On March 21, 2016, Rocket Lab announced that it had qualified its Rutherford engine for flight. Development spanned two years and more than 200 engine hot fire tests. One month later, the company announced that the Electron second stage had been qualified, with test firings on the company's test stand. The first stage was qualified on December 13, 2016.

Electron Second Stage with Rutherford Vacuum Engine: Rocket Lab delivered its first Electron vehicle to Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 at Mahia on February 16, 2017. A series of tests were planned before the rocket, named "It's a Test", would be ready to fly. It would be the first of three planned test flights before Rocket Lab begins flying payloads for paying customers.

To support the Electron project development, Rocket Lab received investment from Silicon Valley-based Khosla Venture Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, Data Collective, Promus Ventures, as well as the aerospace company Lockheed Martin. The test program of the vehicle is scheduled to run throughout the second half of 2016 from Rocket Lab's Mahia launch site. Customers publicly announced to fly on Electron vehicle include NASA, Moon Express and Spire (Ref. 4).

On March 22, 2017, Rocket Lab announced that it had garnered $75 million in new financing, bringing its total to $148 million. It also announced that it was opening an office in Huntington Beach, California that included production floor space.

This year alone Rocket Lab has qualified both the second stage of the vehicle and the Rutherford Engine which was developed in-house specifically for use on Electron. The qualification of the engine was a major milestone for 3D printing; Rutherford is the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use additive manufacturing for all primary components of its combustor and propellant supply system.

Electron Inaugural Falls Short of Orbit: Rocket Lab's Electron rocket fell short of orbit in its inaugural test launch from New Zealand on May 25, 2017. The new small launch vehicle, named "It's a Test", lifted off from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand's North Island at 04:20 UTC. The 17 m tall, 1.2 m diameter rocket, its innovative carbon composite case propellant tanks filled with kerosene and liquid oxygen, was slated to steer toward a south, south-east azimuth, rising on about 15.65 metric tons of thrust from its nine equally-innovative, electric-motor-pump-fed Rutherford engines.

Electron carried test instrumentation, rather than a revenue payload, on this test flight. The launch was not broadcast live and post-launch information was limited. Peter Beck reported that Electron had a good first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition, and fairing separation, but orbital velocity was not achieved. A 300 x 500 km orbit with an inclination of 83º orbit was planned.

The company did not give a cause for the failure. It did release several videos showing portions of the first stage flight. An on-board video showed a roll developing during ascent. Plans called for the first stage to burn for 2 minutes 30 seconds. Stage separation was to take place four seconds after first stage shutdown. The second stage's single vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine was then slated to fire for 4 minutes 48 seconds to reach orbital velocity.

The launch took place after several days of weather delays. Although orbit was not achieved, Peter Beck expressed satisfaction with the results of the heavily instrumented test flight- the first of three such test flights currently planned.

 


 

Electron Launch Vehicle

Rocket Lab is leading the way in delivering a one-of-a-kind service to small payload customers. Rocket Lab has sourced an extensive design and production team including Launch Vehicle, Propulsion and GNC (Guidance, Navigation and Control)engineers who are leaders in their respective fields across all disciplines of aerospace manufacture. The key to liberating the emerging small satellite industry lies in the pricing, availability, innovation and reliability of Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle.

The Electron launch vehicle is the first orbital launch vehicle designed and manufactured by Rocket Lab. It is a two-stage vehicle servicing the emerging small satellite market and has been designed with a high flight rate in mind. Combining the latest manufacturing technologies with standardized analysis packages and multiple domestic launch ranges, Electron is optimized for quickly launching constellations of small satellites. Capable of launching 150 kg to a nominal 500 km sun-synchronous orbit from our Rocket Lab Launch Complex in New Zealand as well as from U.S. domestic ranges, Electron provides a primary payload quality launch service at a secondary payload price. 6)

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Figure 1: Illustration of the Electron launch vehicle and its elements (image credit: Rocket Lab) 7)

Electron's design incorporates a fusion of both conventional and advanced liquid rocket engine technology coupled with innovative use of electrical systems and carbon fiber composites. The launch vehicle stands 17 m tall, with a diameter of 1.2 m and a lift off mass of 13,000 kg . Electron is designed to launch a 150 kg payload to a circular sun-synchronous orbit. Overall dimensions of Electron are summarized in Table 1.

Length, diameter

17 m, 1.2 m

Stages

2

Vehicle Mass (Lift-off)

13,000 kg

Payload mass

150 kg (sun-synchronous orbit)

Payload diameter

1.08 m

Standard orbit

500 km (sun-synchronous orbit)

Propulsion – Stage 1

9 x Rutherford Engines (LOx/Kerosene), 162 kN (192 kN max), Isp = 303 s

Propulsion – Stage 2

1 x Rutherford Engine (LOx/Kerosene), 22 kN, Isp = 333 s

Material/Structure

Carbon Fiber Composite

Standard Launch Site

Mahia, New Zealand

Table 1: Electron launch vehicle overall dimensions and specifications

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Figure 2: Electron launch vehicle configuration (image credit: Rocket Lab)

Rutherford Engine: Electron's Rutherford engines are named after notable New Zealand-born Physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871 – 1937), who split the atom in 1917 and challenged scientific thinking of the day. Rocket Lab's flagship engine, the 22 kN Rutherford, is an electric turbo-pumped LOx/RP-1 engine specifically designed for the Electron launch vehicle.

Rutherford adopts an entirely new electric propulsion cycle, making use of brushless DC electric motors and high-performance lithium polymer batteries to drive its turbo-pumps.

Rutherford is also the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use additive manufacturing for all primary components, including the regeneratively cooled thrust chamber, injector pumps, and main propellant valves. Stage 2 features a larger expansion ratio for improved performance in near-vacuum-conditions. All aspects of the engine are designed, developed and manufactured at Rocket Lab.

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Figure 3: Left: Rutherford electro turbo-pumped engine. Right: Rutherford Stage 1 configuration with nine engines (image credit: Rocket Lab)

 

Some design parameters:

Plug-In Payload: Electron's payload fairing is designed to decouple payload integration from the main assembly. The all–carbon composite payload fairing is designed and manufactured in-house at Rocket Lab. Rocket Lab's standard process is to integrate payloads at the launch site in a traditional manner. With the Rocket Lab "Plug-In Payload" module, the customer can choose to manage this process using his own preferred facilities and personnel. Environmentally controlled or sealed payload modules are transported back to Rocket Lab where integration with the Electron vehicle can occur in a matter of hours.

The payload fairing is a split clam shell design and includes environmental control for the payload. Characteristics of the payload fairing are summarised in Table 2. The fairing is constructed out of thin carbon composite sandwich panels on either side. Each half of the fairing is
designed to rotate on hinges mounted on Stage 2.

Length

2.5 m

Diameter (maximum)

1.2 m

Mass

44 kg (total mass)

Acoustic protection

Foam sheets

Separation system

Pneumatic unlocking, springs

Table 2: Payload fairing characteristics

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Figure 4: Electron payload fairing internal dimensions (image credit: Rocket Lab)

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Figure 5: Payload electrical interfaces (image credit: Rocket Lab)

Kick Stage: An apogee kick stage that can execute multiple burns to place numerous payloads into different, circularized orbits. It opens up significantly more orbital options, particularly for rideshare customers that have traditionally been limited to the primary payload's designated orbit. Powered by Rocket Lab's 3D printed liquid propellant Curie engine capable of 120 N of thrust and multiple burns.

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Figure 6: Photo of the Electron Kick Stage (image credit: Rocket Lab)

Carbon Composite Materials: Electron makes use of advanced carbon composite materials for a strong and lightweight flight structure. Through an extensive research program, Rocket Lab has developed carbon composite tanks that are compatible with liquid oxygen, providing impressive weight savings.

A New Propulsion Cycle: Rutherford is an oxygen/kerosene pump fed engine specifically designed in-house for Electron using an entirely new propulsion cycle. Its unique high-performance electric propellant pumps reduce mass and replace hardware with software.

3D Printing: Rutherford is the first oxygen/kerosene engine to use 3D printing for all primary components.

Avionics: Rocket Lab excels at producing high-performance miniature avionics and flight computer systems. The computing nodes make use of state-of-the-art FPGA architecture, allowing massive customization of function while retaining hardware commonality.

GNC (Guidance, Navigation and Control): The GNC systems are designed with emphasis on rapid configurability resulting in faster customer turnaround times. This enables Rocket Lab to achieve its goal of providing rapid and cost-effective launch capabilities of multi-satellite constellations. Avionics flight hardware is custom designed by Rocket Lab and includes flight computers and a navigation suite incorporating an IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit), GPS receiver and S-band transmitter which transmits telemetry and video to ground operations. Guidance and control algorithms are developed with flexibility of customer payload and orbit in mind and the combination of flight hardware, software and guidance and control algorithms is fully tested and validated using hardware-in-the-loop testing frameworks.

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Figure 7: Photo of the GNC system (image credit: Rocket Lab)

RF communications: Electron provides telemetry to Rocket Lab ground stations via three S-band transmitters housed in the Stage 2 avionics bay alongside two FTS receivers and two GPS modules. The launch vehicle is equipped with the transmission and reception systems summarized in Table 3. The position of the vehicle is determined by two independent sources and transmitted to ground systems through telemetry links. Electron's Stage 2 attenuates the launch vehicle transmissions during launch pad operations, flight and up to fairing separation. The S-band transmissions at this time will not radiate into the fairing environment and affect the payload, but Rocket Lab recommends the payload is switched off during the launch to minimize the risk of interference and damage to the payload. The spacecraft RF characteristics should be such that there is no interference with the launch vehicle RF systems listed in Table 3.

Function

Command Terminate

Source Stage 2 Telemetry

GPS L1

Band

UHF

S-band

L-band

Direction

Receive

Transmit

Receive

Frequencies

400-450 MHz

2.3-2.4 GHz

1.57 GHz

Quantity

2

3

2

Table 3: Sample RF environment characteristics

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Figure 8: The Electron vehicle 'Still Testing' on the launch pad on Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand (image credit: Rocket Lab)

 

Launch: Rocket Lab has successfully reached orbit with the test flight of its second Electron orbital launch vehicle, Still Testing. Electron lifted-off at 14:43 NZDT on Jan. 21, 2018 (corresponding to 01:43 UTC on Jan. 20) from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand (Ref. 5). 8) 9)

Orbit: A near -curcular orbit with an altitude of about 490 x 530 km and an inclination of 83º was reached — with the support of a kick stage.

A total of five scrubbed or aborted launch attempts preceeded the launch. They took place on December 9, 11, 12, and 15 and on January 20.

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Figure 9: Rocket Lab Electron 'Still Testing' leaves the pad at LC-1 (image credit: Rocket Lab)

 


 

Mission status

• On January 24, 2018, Rocket Lab announced that a fourth payload, also previously unannounced, had been orbited, apparently accounting for a third object tracked in the 300 x 500 km orbit. The Rocket Lab payload, named Humanity Star, was "a geodesic sphere made from carbon fibre with 65 highly reflective panels". The spinning payload should relect sunlight to create a flashing effect visible to ground observers (Ref. 5).

• On January 23, 2018, Rocket Lab announced that the second Electron had carried an unannouced monopropellant kick stage that fired at first apogee to insert the two Lemur-2 CubeSats into roughly 490 x 530 km, near-circular orbits. The kick stage used a 12.2 kgf restartable engine named "Curie". The Dove satellite was jettisonned into the previously announced 300 x 500 km orbit shortly after the Electron second stage shut down. The kick stage did not perform its insertion burn until T+48-49 minutes, long after Rocket Lab's webcast of the launch ended suggesting that a successful flight had been concluded when it was, in fact, still underway. A photograph of the kick stage showed that it had on-board avionics and three-axis control jets. 10)

- The kick stage was flown and tested on board the recent 'Still Testing' flight that was successfully launched on 21 January 2018 from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. The complex mission was a success, with the new apogee kick stage coasting in orbit for around 40 minutes before powering up and igniting Rocket Lab's new restartable liquid propulsion engine called Curie, then shutting down and deploying the payloads. With the new kick stage Rocket Lab can execute multiple burns to place numerous payloads into different orbits.

- Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck says the kick stage opens up significantly more orbital options, particularly for rideshare customers that have traditionally been limited to the primary payload's designated orbit.

- "Until now many small satellite operators have had to compromise on optimal orbits in order to reach space at an accessible cost. The kick stage releases small satellites from the constricting parameters of primary payload orbits and enables them to full reach their potential, including faster deployment of small satellite constellations and better positioning for Earth imaging," Beck says.

- The kick stage is designed for use on the Electron launch vehicle with a payload capacity of up to 150 kg and will be used to disperse CubeSat constellations faster and more accurately, enabling satellite data to be received and utilized sooner after launch.

- Equipped with a precision pointing cold gas reaction control system, the kick stage also has its own avionics, power and communications systems.

- As the proliferation of small satellites in low Earth orbit continues and the risk of collisions increases, the kick stage also offers a sustainable solution to reducing the amount of staging left to decay in orbit. The kick stage offers a much smaller system with its own green propulsion system to de-orbit the stage after mission completion, reducing the launch vehicle material left in space.

 


 

Payloads

The Electron vehicle carried and deployed the following payloads:

1) A Dove Pioneer Earth-imaging satellite (a 3U CubeSat) for Planet of San Francisco.

2) Two Lemur-2 satellites (2U CubeSats) for the weather and ship tracking company Spire Global Inc., San Francisco, CA.

 

Humanity Star

This mission was important to Rocket Lab because it was the first time that the company sent payloads into orbit. In addition to the commercial payloads, the launch also sent a secret payload into orbit at the behest of the company's founder, Peter Beck. He wanted to create a shared experience for all humanity by sending up a satellite that is the brightest object in the night sky. It is known as the "Humanity Star", a disco-like geodesic sphere that measures ~1 meter in diameter and will form a bright spot in the sky that will be visible to people on Earth. 11)

The Humanity Star is central to Beck's vision of how space travel can improve the lives of people here on Earth. In addition to presenting extensive opportunities for scientific research, there is also the way it fosters a sense of unity between people and nations. This is certainly a defining feature of the modern space age, where cooperation has replaced competition as the main driving force.

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Figure 10: Peter Beck, founder of Rocket Lab, is shown with the Humanity Star (image credit: Rocket Lab)

The Humanity Star is a geodesic sphere, made from carbon fiber with 65 highly reflective panels. The Humanity Star sphere spins rapidly, reflecting the sun's light back to Earth. Essentially, it creates a similar effect as a disco ball, creating the appearance of a bright flashing shooting star. Orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes and visible from anywhere on the globe, the Humanity Star is designed to be a bright symbol and reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe. 12)


Under One Sky: "For millennia, humans have focused on their terrestrial lives and issues. Seldom do we as a species stop, look to the stars and realize our position in the universe as an achingly tiny speck of dust in the grandness of it all. Humanity is finite, and we won't be here forever. Yet in the face of this almost inconceivable insignificance, humanity is capable of great and kind things when we recognize we are one species, responsible for the care of each other, and our planet, together. The Humanity Star is to remind us of this.

No matter where you are in the world, rich or in poverty, in conflict or at peace, everyone will be able to see the bright, blinking Humanity Star orbiting Earth in the night sky. My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important.

Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with." Peter Beck.

 


 

Rocket Lab Facilities

Rocket Lab operates from a large combined office and factory production facility located close to Auckland Airport. The facility employs a team of engineers and technicians with production resources covering a wide scope of equipment and machinery, enabling rapid cost-effective fabrication of flight system and vehicle components (Ref. 6).

Rocket Lab operates a test facility situated within close proximity to the administration and factory facility in Auckland. Propulsion system tests primarily take place in this test facility. Rapid design, build and test schedules are made possible with such a conveniently located test cell.

Rocket Lab currently operates a private launch range at Mahia Peninsula located in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Future U.S. domestic launches will be occurring from both U.S. coasts via existing ranges. New Zealand's Southern Hemisphere location offers Rocket Lab clients a unique launch environment as an island nation surrounded by open water and clear air.

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Figure 11: New Zealand and its global location (image credit: Rocket Lab)

The main launch control center consists of workstations for each team, including the flight safety team, the payload team, the launch vehicle team and the launch director.

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Figure 12: Rocket Lab Launch Complex at Mahia (image credit: Rocket Lab)

Launch site coordinates: 39.26º S, 177.86º E

 


1) "Rocket Lab", Wikipedia, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocket_Lab

2) https://www.rocketlabusa.com/about-us/

3) Bradley J. Schneider, "Rocket Lab Introduction," July 2016, URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20160920143833if_/http:
//usgif.org/system/uploads/4606/original/ROCKET_LAB_INTRO_USGIF.pdf

4) "Rocket Lab Celebrates Rich Ten-Year History," Rocket Lab, 30 June 2016, URL: https://www.rocketlabusa.com/news
/updates/rocket-lab-celebrates-rich-ten-year-history/

5) "Space Launch Report: Rocket Lab Electron Data Sheet," Rocket Lab Electron, 2015, URL: http://www.spacelaunchreport.com/electron.html

6) "Payload User's Guide," Rocket Lab, 16 Dec. 2016, Version 4.0, URL: https://www.rocketlabusa.com/assets
/Uploads/Payload-User-Guide.pdf

7) "Electron — Bold Hardware That Will Change How We Access Space," Rocket Lab, URL: http://rocketlabusa.com/electron/

8) Jeff Foust, "Rocket Lab Electron reaches orbit on second launch," Space News, 20 Jan. 2018, URL: http://spacenews.com/rocket-lab
-electron-reaches-orbit-on-second-launch/

9) Eric Berger, "Rocket Lab makes it into orbit, nears commercial operations," ars Technica, 22 Jan. 2018, URL: https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/01/rocket
-lab-makes-it-into-orbit-nears-commercial-operations/

10) "Rocket Lab successfully circularizes orbit with new Electron kick stage," Rocket Lab, 23 Jan. 2018, URL: http://rocketlabusa.com/news/updates/rocket-lab
-successfully-circularizes-orbit-with-new-electron-kick-stage/

11) Matt Williams, "Perhaps the Best Part of Electron's Successful Launch was its Payload: the Humanity Sphere," Universe Today, 25 Jan. 2018, URL: https://www.universetoday.com/138365/
perhaps-best-part-electrons-successful-launch-payload-humanity-sphere/

12) "Humanity Star," URL: https://www.thehumanitystar.com/
 


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net).

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