Electron (rocket)

Electron is a two-stage orbital expendable launch vehicle (with an optional third stage) developed by the American aerospace company Rocket Lab to cover the commercial small satellite launch segment (CubeSats).[10] Its Rutherford engines, manufactured in California, are the first electric-pump-fed engine to power an orbital rocket.[11]

FunctionOrbital launch vehicle
ManufacturerRocket Lab
Country of originUnited States[1][2] [3]
New Zealand[4]
Cost per launchAbout US$6 million[5]
Height17 m (56 ft)[6]
Diameter1.2 m (3 ft 11 in)[6]
Mass12,500 kg (27,600 lb)[7]
Payload to 500 km SSO[6]150–225 kg (330–495 lb)[6]
Associated rockets
ComparableShavit, Kaituozhe-1, Unha, Prime, Miura 5
Launch history
Launch sites
Total launches10
First flight25 May 2017
Last flight6 December 2019
First stage
Length12.1 m (40 ft)
Diameter1.2 m (3 ft 11 in)[6]
Engines9 × Rutherford[6]
ThrustSea level: 162 kN (36,000 lbf)[6]
Vacuum: 192 kN (43,000 lbf)[6]
Specific impulse303 seconds (2.97 km/s)[6]
Second stage
Length2.4 m (7 ft 10 in)
Diameter1.2 m (3 ft 11 in)[6]
Engines1 × Rutherford[6]
ThrustVacuum: 22 kN (4,900 lbf)[6]
Specific impulse333 seconds (3.27 km/s)[6]
Third stage (optional)
Engines1 × Curie[8]
ThrustVacuum: 0.12 kN (27 lbf)[8]
Fuelunspecified "green" monopropellant

In December 2016, Electron completed flight qualification. The first rocket was launched on 25 May 2017,[12] reaching space but not achieving orbit due to a glitch in communication equipment on the ground.[13] During its second flight on 21 January 2018, Electron reached orbit and deployed three CubeSats.[14] The first commercial launch of Electron, and the third launch overall, occurred on 11 November 2018.[15]


Electron uses two stages with the same diameter (1.2 m, 3 ft 11 in) filled with RP-1/LOX propellant. The main body of the rocket is constructed using a lightweight carbon composite material.[16]

Both stages use the innovative Rutherford rocket engine, the first electric-pump-fed engine to power an orbital rocket.[11] The electric pumps are powered by Li-Polymer batteries. The second stage consists of three batteries which are "hot swapped", two of which are jettisoned once depleted to shed mass.[17] There are nine Rutherford engines on the first stage and one vacuum-optimized version on the second stage.[18][19][20] The first stage engines deliver 162 kN (36,000 lbf) of force and the second stage delivers 22 kN (4,900 lbf) of force. Almost all of the engines' parts are 3D printed to save time and money in the manufacturing process.[11][16]

Rocket Lab has also developed an optional third stage designed to circularize the orbits of its satellite payloads. The stage also puts satellites into a more accurate orbit in less time. This "kick" stage employs a new rocket engine, named Curie, that is capable of performing multiple burns, uses an unspecified "green" monopropellant, and is 3D printed. It was first used during Electron's second flight.[21] The "kick" stage can transport up to 150 kg (330 lb) of payload.[22]

Another third stage design, called 'Photon', is being developed to inject small payloads up to 30 kg (66 lb) into lunar orbit.[23]


Manufacturing the carbon composite components of the main flight structure has traditionally required 400 hours, with extensive hand labor in the process. In late 2019, Rocket Lab brought online a new robotic manufacturing capability to produce all composite parts for an Electron in just 12 hours. The process can make all the carbon fiber structures, as well as handle cutting, drilling, and sanding such that the parts are ready for final assembly. The company objective as of November 2019 is to reduce the overall Electron manufacturing cycle to just seven days.[24]

Rutherford engine production makes extensive use of additive manufacturing and has since the earliest flights of Electron. This allows the capability to scale production in a relatively straightforward manner by increasing the number and capability of 3D printers.[24]


Electron is designed to launch a 150 to 225 kg (330 to 495 lb) payload to a 500 km (310 mi) Sun-synchronous orbit, suitable for CubeSats and other small payloads.[6][25] In October 2018 Rocket Lab opened a factory large enough to produce more than 50 rockets per year according to the company.[26] Customers may choose to encapsulate their spacecraft in payload fairings provided by the company, which can be easily attached to the rocket shortly before launch.[27] The price for delivering up to 150 kg to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit is about $6 million per launch, which offers the only dedicated service at this price point.[5][10][28]

Moon Express contracted to launch a lunar lander on an Electron to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize.[29] None of the contenders met the prize deadline, but the launch remains scheduled.[30]

Rocket Lab has also announced plans to study the potential recovery of the Electron booster for reuse, using a parachute and mid-air retrieval.[31]

Launch sites

The rocket is launched from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand.[16] The launch pad's remote and sparsely populated location is intended to enable a high frequency of launches.[16] The rocket and launch pad were both privately funded, the first time all parts of an orbital launch operation were entirely run by the private sector (other private spaceflight companies lease launch facilities from government agencies or only launch suborbital rockets).[16][25]

In October 2018, Rocket Lab selected the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at the Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia, as its future secondary launch site in the United States, called Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2. The first launches from Wallops are planned in the third quarter of 2019.[32] Launch Complex 2 is expected to serve government customers.[33]

Additionally, the UK Space Agency is giving Highlands and Islands Enterprise the opportunity to develop an Electron launch pad on the A' Mhòine Peninsula in Sutherland, Scotland.[34] The location would be named Sutherland spaceport.[35]

Launch history

The Electron has flown 10 times since May 2017. There have been 9 successes and 1 failure. The initial test flight, called "It's a Test", failed due to a glitch in communication equipment on the ground, but the follow-up missions, called "Still Testing", "It's Business Time" and "This One's For Pickering", delivered multiple small payloads to low Earth orbit.[36][37] In August 2019, a mission named "Look Ma, No Hands" successfully delivered four satellites to orbit,[38] and in October 2019, the mission named "As the Crow Flies" successfully launched from Mahia LC-1, deploying a small satellite and its kick stage into a 400 km parking orbit.[39]

Notable launches

  • "Still Testing", Electron's first successful launch[40]
  • ELaNa-19, Electron's first NASA-sponsored launch[41]

Launch statistics

Launch outcomes

  •   Failure
  •   Partial failure
  •   Success
  •   Scheduled

Launch sites


See also


  1. Berger, Eric (17 October 2018). "Rocket Lab Gets Second Launch Site Gears Up for Rapid Flight Cadence". Ars Technica. Retrieved 17 October 2018.
  2. Botsford End, Rae (2 May 2015). "Rocket Lab: the Electron, the Rutherford, and why Peter Beck started it in the first place". Spaceflight Insider. Retrieved 20 October 2018.
  3. "Rocket Lab Electron 'Its a Test' flight successfully makes it to space". Rocket Lab. 25 May 2017.
  4. "Rocket Lab Celebrates Rich Ten-Year History". Rocket Lab USA. 30 June 2016.
  5. Mann, Adam (6 December 2017). "Rocket Lab poised to provide dedicated launcher for CubeSat science". Science. Retrieved 6 December 2017.
  6. "Electron". Rocket Lab. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  7. "Rocket Lab Electron Data Sheet". Space Launch Report. November 2018. Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  8. Bennett, Jay (23 January 2018). "Rocket Lab Reveals Secret Engine and "Kick Stage" for the Electron Rocket". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 24 January 2018.
  9. Clark, Stephen (16 July 2018). "Scotland site selected as launch base for Lockheed Martin, Orbex". Spaceflight Now.
  10. "Electron". Rocket Lab. March 2016. Archived from the original on 17 July 2016. Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  11. Grush, Loren (14 April 2015). "A 3D-Printed, Battery-Powered Rocket Engine". Popular Science. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  12. "New Zealand space launch is first from a private site". BBC News. 25 May 2017. Retrieved 26 May 2017.
  13. "New Zealand test rocket makes it to space but not into orbit". Independent.ie. Associated Press. 25 May 2017. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  14. Ryan, Holly (21 January 2018). "Blast off! Rocket Lab successfully reaches orbit". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  15. Rocket Lab (10 November 2018), It's Business Time Launch - 11/11/2018, retrieved 11 November 2018
  16. Smyth, Jamie (21 January 2018). "Private group in 'world first' cheap rocket launch". Financial Times. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  17. "Launch Week Arrives for Rocket Lab's Electron – Spaceflight101". Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  18. Brügge, Norbert. "Electron NLV". B14643.de. Archived from the original on 27 September 2016. Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  19. Brügge, Norbert. "Electron Propulsion". B14643.de. Archived from the original on 27 September 2016. Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  20. "Propulsion". Rocket Lab. Archived from the original on 19 September 2016. Retrieved 19 September 2016.
  21. Foust, Jeff (23 January 2018). "Rocket Lab launch also tested new kick stage". SpaceNews. Retrieved 23 January 2018.
  22. Rocket Lab (23 January 2018). "Rocket Lab successfully circularizes orbit with new Electron kick stage". Retrieved 9 May 2019.
  23. Berger, Eric (21 October 2019). "Rocket Lab—yep, Rocket Lab—has a plan to deliver satellites to the Moon". Ars Technica.
  24. Foust, Jeff (13 November 2019). "Rocket Lab introduces robotic manufacturing system to increase Electron production". SpaceNews. Retrieved 14 November 2019.
  25. Cofield, Calla (26 September 2016). "Rocket Lab Opens Private Orbital Launch Site in New Zealand". Space.com. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  26. Dodd, Tim (11 October 2018). "Exclusive inside look at Rocket Lab's secret new mega factory!". Everyday Astronaut. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  27. "Payload User's Guide" (PDF). 4.0. Rocket Lab. December 2016. Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 November 2017. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
  28. Berger, Eric (12 April 2018). "Rocket Lab is about to win the small satellite launch space race". Ars Technica. Retrieved 20 July 2018.
  29. Grush, Loren (21 January 2018). "Spaceflight startup Rocket Lab sends its Electron rocket to orbit for the first time". The Verge. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  30. Wall, Mike (23 January 2018). "Ex-Prize: Google's $30 Million Moon Race Ends with No Winner". Space.com. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  31. "Rocket Lab Announces Reusability Plans For Electron Rocket". Rocket Lab. 6 August 2019. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  32. Foust, Jeff (17 October 2018). "Rocket Lab selects Wallops for U.S. launch site". SpaceNews. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  33. Clark, Stephen (29 June 2019). "Rocket Lab flies again from New Zealand as work progresses at Virginia launch pad". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  34. Amos, Jonathan (16 July 2018). "Scotland to host first UK spaceport". BBC News. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
  35. "Sutherland Spaceport Scotland". SpaceTV.net. Retrieved 22 August 2019.
  36. "Rocket Lab Completes Post-Flight Analysis". Rocket Lab. 7 August 2017. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  37. Foust, Jeff (7 August 2017). "Telemetry glitch kept first Electron rocket from reaching orbit". SpaceNews. Retrieved 9 August 2017.
  38. Howell, Elizabeth (19 August 2019). "Rocket Lab Electron Booster Launches 4 Satellites Into Orbit". Space.com. Retrieved 22 August 2019.
  39. Etherington, Darrell (16 October 2019). "Rocket Lab successfully launches fifth Electron rocket this year". TechCrunch. Retrieved 20 November 2019.
  40. Clark, Stephen (21 January 2018). "Rocket Lab delivers nanosatellites to orbit on first successful test launch". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  41. Clark, Stephen (17 December 2018). "NASA, Rocket Lab partner on successful satellite launch from New Zealand". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 15 June 2019.

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