We’re thrilled to be launching with Rocket Lab, one on the new small launch vehicle providers who is making access to space even easier. We sat down with Daniel Gillies, Rocket Lab Mission Management and Integration Director, to find out more about how they are changing the game.
How is Rocket Lab changing the space industry?
Rocket Lab is revolutionizing the launch industry by providing rapid and repeatable access to orbit for small satellites. We’ve developed a vertically integrated launch model that will see us build and launch rockets to orbit more frequently than any other launch provider in history, enabling the development of critical infrastructure on orbit.
Advancements in the miniaturization of space technology has resulted in small spacecraft outpacing the vehicles they launch on. While dedicated small spacecraft can now conduct innovative science that helps us better understand the Earth and our universe, launch vehicles had still been sized for their larger predecessors. Now with Electron, a right-size launch solution exists to provide these spacecraft a direct, tailored ride to space.
What is the “secret sauce” of Rocket Lab?
Rocket Lab’s secret sauce is definitely the talented and dedicated team behind Electron. While other “new” players in the launch arena are made of up teams of people who have left larger providers to join a startup, Rocket Lab has developed all of its technologies and processes from the ground up – sometimes truly revolutionary even. Electron is an entirely new class of vehicle that was designed from built from scratch, rather than trying to make old, existing hardware solve a modern space access problem. The team at Rocket Lab is not afraid to challenge norms, try new things and turn traditional models on their head. This relentless drive to innovate and solve problems in new and efficient ways gave us a vehicle and launch site unlike any other. Our launch vehicle has been designed with mass production in mind from day one, and our launch site has been designed to support launches every 72 hours, which will be more than any other site on the globe.
What is unique about the Electron?
Electron is the world’s first fully carbon composite orbital launch vehicle. It makes for a lightweight vehicle that saves on mass, without compromising on strength. Electron is also unique in that it’s powered by 3D printed, electric pump-fed engines. Typically, gas turbines are used in rocket engines to push fuel and oxidizer at super high speeds into the high-pressure combustion chamber, but this requires complicated extra hardware and fuel. Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engine uses an entirely new electric propulsion cycle consisting of two brushless direct current (DC) electric motors and high-performance lithium polymer batteries. This makes for a simpler design, reduces the plumbing complexity, saves weight and makes modifications possible through software changes. Additionally, the Electron performance improves naturally as battery technology improves, which is driven by a number of other high-tech sectors around the globe.
What have been some of the challenges Rocket Lab has faced in testing a new launch vehicle?
Rockets are one of the most complex engineering challenges on the planet. Every piece of hardware, every system, every software change – it all goes through rigorous testing to ensure it will perform in the incredibly taxing environments of launch, and then space. That said, one of the biggest challenges we faced in creating the Electron program was actually the development of the launch site, Launch Complex 1, on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. New Zealand’s remote island location and low volume of marine and air traffic create ideal conditions for frequent launch opportunities. In addition, launches from the site can access a uniquely wide range of orbital inclinations – from 39 degrees through sun-synchronous. This remote location presented unique challenges during the site’s development, as we needed to build roads, upgrade internet capability to a whole region and work through all the necessary regulatory requirements. We overcame every challenge along the way though, and the result is having control over our own launch site and schedule, which is invaluable.
What has been positive for Rocket Lab about working with Spaceflight?
As a former employee of Spaceflight, I am extremely familiar with the experience Spaceflight brings with respect to rideshare payloads on a variety of launch vehicles. Spaceflight has a deep reach into the market and brings integration ready spacecraft to Electron for launch, which can simplify the overall launch process.
What do you think is unique about Spaceflight?
Spaceflight Industries as a whole is unique in that in addition to integrating spacecraft for launch on a variety of launch vehicles, Spaceflight also has a team of engineers who build and operate spacecraft as well. This gives Spaceflight insight into what spacecraft customers are looking for with respect to launch services and mission integration, in addition to having that engineering team within arm’s reach whenever that specialist knowledge is required.
What are you looking forward to most about Spaceflight’s Electron launch?
It’s really exciting and rewarding to have my team working with Spaceflight’s team of Mission Managers to bring their missions to completion in the coming year.