An upstart New Zealand rocket company says it has found a way to drastically cut the cost of satellite launches: 3-D printing rocket components. The Rocket Lab’s new Rutherford engine, formally announced on April 14 at Colorado’s Space Symposium, is built out of carbon-based materials instead of metals, and will allow satellites to be launched for $5 million a pop–less than 1/40th the price of the average rocket launch.
Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, told Fast Company that the Rutherford engines are made from titanium and super alloys using additive manufacturing (better known to the rest of us as 3-D printing) over the course of three days. He added that a conventional rocket engine takes a month to manufacture, and that his company’s goal is to eventually launch one satellite into orbit each week.
The small Rutherford engines are fueled by liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene and generate 13.3 kilonewtons of thrust at liftoff. Beck added that building the engines’ turbopumps, small soda can-size components that each generate the horsepower of a car, was one of the company’s biggest logistical issues.
Admittedly, New Zealand is an odd place for a space firm to be located. But although Rocket Lab is now based in the United States, Beck says his native country is perfect for rocket launches. “We’re trying to achieve a very high flight rate at an affordable price. As a small island nation in the Pacific, there’s nothing around us. We can achieve a wide variety of things and not impact commercial aircraft or shipping–things that in the U.S. are much harder. We’re serious about this once-a-week launch rate,” he added.
Although Beck might be serious about his company’s weekly satellite launches, the real question is how feasible Rocket Lab’s model is. They are among the best-known contenders in a growing field of companies launching the pint-size satellites known as “smallsats” and “nanosats” into orbit. While the vanguard of space exploration is shifting from governmental space agencies to private companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Planetary Ventures, investors are hoping the smallsat field will generate returns. Rocket Lab has received funding from Silicon Valley venture firms Bessemer Venture Partners and Khosla Ventures, along with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and New Zealand-based fund K1W1.