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). Its Rutherford engines, manufactured in California, are the first electric-pump-fed engine to power an orbital rocket.
|Function||Orbital launch vehicle|
|Country of origin||United States
|Cost per launch||About US$6 million|
|Height||17 m (56 ft)|
|Diameter||1.2 m (3 ft 11 in)|
|Mass||12,500 kg (27,600 lb)|
|Payload to 500 km SSO||150–225 kg (330–495 lb)|
|Comparable||Shavit, Kaituozhe-1, Unha, Prime, Miura 5|
|First flight||25 May 2017|
|Last flight||6 December 2019|
|Length||12.1 m (40 ft)|
|Diameter||1.2 m (3 ft 11 in)|
|Engines||9 × Rutherford|
|Thrust||Sea level: 162 kN (36,000 lbf) |
Vacuum: 192 kN (43,000 lbf)
|Specific impulse||303 seconds (2.97 km/s)|
|Length||2.4 m (7 ft 10 in)|
|Diameter||1.2 m (3 ft 11 in)|
|Engines||1 × Rutherford|
|Thrust||Vacuum: 22 kN (4,900 lbf)|
|Specific impulse||333 seconds (3.27 km/s)|
|Third stage (optional)|
|Engines||1 × Curie|
|Thrust||Vacuum: 0.12 kN (27 lbf)|
|Fuel||unspecified "green" monopropellant|
In December 2016, Electron completed flight qualification. The first rocket was launched on 25 May 2017, reaching space but not achieving orbit due to a glitch in communication equipment on the ground. During its second flight on 21 January 2018, Electron reached orbit and deployed three CubeSats. The first commercial launch of Electron, and the third launch overall, occurred on 11 November 2018.
Both stages use the innovative Rutherford rocket engine, the first electric-pump-fed engine to power an orbital rocket. 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. There are nine Rutherford engines on the first stage and one vacuum-optimized version on the second stage. 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.
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. The "kick" stage can transport up to 150 kg (330 lb) of payload.
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.
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.
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. In October 2018 Rocket Lab opened a factory large enough to produce more than 50 rockets per year according to the company. 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. 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.
Rocket Lab has also announced plans to study the potential recovery of the Electron booster for reuse, using a parachute and mid-air retrieval.
The rocket is launched from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. The launch pad's remote and sparsely populated location is intended to enable a high frequency of launches. 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).
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. Launch Complex 2 is expected to serve government customers.
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. The location would be named Sutherland spaceport.
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. In August 2019, a mission named "Look Ma, No Hands" successfully delivered four satellites to orbit, 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.
- "Still Testing", Electron's first successful launch
- ELaNa-19, Electron's first NASA-sponsored launch
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