Long Live the New Zealand Space Corps!

by wjw on May 25, 2017

Today we breathlessly awaited the launch of New Zealand’s first rocket, which finally happened after bad weather forced several delays.  Check the video to see the Electron two-stage vehicle leaping into orbit on its fiery kerosene/LOX tail.  (I advise going to full screen.)

The Electron is a small, low-cost vehicle, designed to hurl aloft small satellites and/or cubesats (which Autocorrect keeps insisting really means “cubists,” some of whom definitely deserve to be flung into space).  The Electron is a product of Rocket Lab, which is actually funded by someone named [Mark] Rocket, and is run by New Zealander Peter Beck.

New Zealand is known for its spectacular geology, its friendly and welcoming people, its distinctive native wildlife, and its hobbits.  But why not aerospace?  Electron’s design is unique, being built around the Rutherford engine, which is the first to use an electric pump design, which means that big heavy pressure tanks are unnecessary.

But what’s really striking about the Electron is that its engines are made through additive manufacturing.

The Electron’s engine, named for the New Zealand-born nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford, is the first of its type to be primarily 3D-printed. Each Rutherford engine, including its engine chamber, injector, pumps and main propellant valves, can be printed in 24 hours.

Nine Rutherford engines drive the Electron’s first stage, producing around 34,500 pounds of thrust at liftoff, and powering up to 41,500 pounds of thrust later in the flight. A single Rutherford engine is on the Electron’s second stage.

Printing your rocket ship?  That means you can carry your rocket design around on a thumb drive.  That means you can print all ten engines for the Electron in ten days, and you can do it anywhere you’ve got an electron beam printer and some metal feed stock.

Presumably you still need to assemble your rocket in more conventional ways, but it could be done by robots, the design of which could also be on your thumb drive.

And it doesn’t stop with rockets.  Imagine printing and assembling your moon base before the astronauts even arrive, all because your printed rockets have been designed to deliver printers, not people.

And at what point do we graduate to printing the astronauts themselves?

The New Zealand Space Corps is showing us the way.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Urban May 25, 2017 at 8:43 am

Battery pumps are an interesting innovation, but as you point out the real revolution is being able to double the launch rate by buying twice as many printers. Think about what that’ll mean in many other areas of manufactured products, particularily how large investment you need to start series production.

DensityDuck June 1, 2017 at 3:41 pm

Also relevant to 3D printing: Using a DLP-style projector to do a whole layer of metal powder at once.

Lawrence Livermore National Lab has worked out a way to use the National Ignition Facility “laser diode” technology to sinter an entire layer of metal powder in one shot, similar to the way that stereolithography parts are made using DLP projectors. This will avoid tool path-induced flaws because there will be no path anymore.


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