Space travel has seen tremendous advances in the fields of Avionics, Robotics and Materials engineering. The risk and difficulty factors have been reduced to minimum levels. But vis-a-vis cost and range, we have been lingering in the stone age since the very start of our space endeavors. It is due to the monstrous fuel consumption of contemporary rocket thrusters that we have been stuck here. It makes it difficult to maintain cost efficiency no matter what we do in other fields.
In order to decrease the fuel consumption associated with each rocket launch, Rocket Labs Inc. have come up with a concept of their electrical powered rocket nicknamed “Electron Launch Vehicle”. With this advancement, the company envisages that number of satellite launches could increase to the basic milestone of 100 a year at one-tenth the cost of conventional rockets. The main reason for their advancement is the new Rutherford engine.
The Rutherford engine is the first engine to have all of its primary parts made from 3-D printing techniques, but the increased efficiency isn’t exactly related to the new manufacturing processes. Rather, it is attributed to the use of electrical pumps to pumps propellants into the combustion chamber. In previous rockets, it was done by turboprops running on gas turbines and consuming tons of fuel unnecessarily.
In the Electron Launch Vehicle, on the other hand, the gas turbine is replaced with an electrically powered brushless DC motor. The motor is powered by Lithium-Polymer batteries. With the help of this revolutionary advancement, the engine can produce 4600 lbf of thrust at an impulse of 327 seconds. The propellant fuel also undergoes minor changes with a mixture of mixture of Liquid Oxygen and RP-1 rocket fuel being used. RP-1 is a further refined form of jet fuel jp-8 and kerosene oil.
In the initial modeling done by the company, the rocket having Dimensions 1m (D) and 20m (l) can carry a 100 Kg load 500 Km into the space. According to Rocket Labs, the Electron Launch Vehicle can send load into a synchronous orbit with the same amount of fuel as a Boeing 747 takes for a flight from New York to Los Angeles. The carbon-composite construction and propriety thermal protection from cryogenics ensure light weight and thermal resistance properties. The cost per launch is 4.9 million dollars. Much lesser than the hundreds of millions we are used to hearing nowadays from NASA, eh?
The company is also working on space versions of this rocket with a major difference in nozzle sizes. The first test flight of this ingenious machine is slated to be undertaken at the end of this year. Commercial flights could start as early as 2016.