Auckland-based Rocket Lab has unveiled what it says is the world's first battery-powered rocket engine.

The engine on its Electron rocket will do away with expensive and complex gas generators and instead use small high-performance electric motors and lithium polymer batteries to drive its turbo pumps. The engine will also incorporate parts made by 3D printers to cut costs and speed up the manufacturing process.

The 18m tall Electron is about a third the size of average rockets it will compete with to take satellites into space and is designed to slash the cost of launches.

Rocket Lab unveiled its turbo pump system overnight at the United States Space Symposium, a gathering of more than 10,000 involved in space technology in Colorado.


The company's chief executive, Peter Beck, said the new electric propulsion cycle could generate 4600lb of thrust.

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Electron will take satellites - up to the size of small fridges - to a range of 500km above the earth. Beck said the company was on track for its first test launch by the end of the year from a site in New Zealand that would be announced soon.

NZ Herald graphic
NZ Herald graphic

The carbon-composite Electron would launch satellites for about $6.6 million. To get satellites into space with other companies can cost more than $100 million, Beck said.

The company also says its engine will be the first to use 3D printed parts for all its primary components including its engine chamber, injector, pumps and main propellant valves.

Beck said materials such as titanium and other alloys go through printers to create complex, lightweight structures, reducing the build time from months to days and increasing affordability.

While 3D printing is used by other aerospace firms - including Airbus which uses the parts on its A350 aircraft - Beck said this was the first time they had been used so extensively for a space vehicle.

Watch the Rutherford engine being test fired here:

The Rutherford engine uses liquid oxygen kerosene as fuel.

Electron has three stages and its upper stage is designed to disconnect the payload integration from the main booster assembly.

This allows Rocket Lab to more quickly put its customers' cargo into the rocket. "This approach eliminates the risk of cascading delays and allows customers to regain control of the integration process, using their own preferred facilities and personnel," said Beck.

Rocket Lab is a privately funded company with its major investors including Sir Stephen Tindall's K1W1 and United States firms Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners and Lockheed.

The company has developed and launched a number of smaller rockets and received up to $25 million of New Zealand government funding over five years. Beck said the company did not need any more funding to get the rocket off the ground.

Rocket Lab has previously said Electron could be launched from a site the size of a rugby field. The site required a northeasterly aspect and had to be clear of populated areas.

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