Smaller And Smarter: The Electron Rocket Takes Flight

On January 21st, 2018 at 1:43 GMT, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifted off from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Roughly eight minutes later ground control received confirmation that the vehicle entered into a good orbit, followed shortly by the successful deployment of the payload. On only their second attempt, Rocket Lab had become the latest private company to put a payload into orbit. An impressive accomplishment, but even more so when you realize that the Electron is like no other rocket that’s ever flown before.

Not that you could tell from the outside. If anything, the external appearance of the Electron might be called boring. Perhaps even derivative, if you’re feeling less generous. It has the same fin-less blunted cylinder shape of most modern rockets, a wholly sensible (if visually unexciting) design. The vehicle’s nine first stage engines would have been noteworthy 15 years ago, but today only serve to draw comparisons with SpaceX’s wildly successful Falcon 9.

But while the Electron’s outward appearance is about as unassuming as they come, under that jet-black outer skin is some of the most revolutionary rocket technology seen since the V-2 first proved practical liquid fueled rockets were possible. As impressive as its been watching SpaceX teach a rocket to fly backwards and land on its tail, their core technology is still largely the same as what took humanity to the Moon in the 1960’s.

Vehicles that fundimentally change the established rules of spaceflight are, as you might expect, fairly rare. They often have a tendency to go up in a ball of flames; figuratively if not always literally. Now that the Electron has reached space and delivered its first payload, there’s no longer a question if the technology is viable or not. But whether anyone but Rocket Lab will embrace all the changes introduced with Electron may end up getting decided by the free market.

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Open Source, 3D Printed Rocket Engines

A liquid-fuel rocket engine is just about the hardest thing anyone could ever build. There are considerations for thermodynamics, machining, electronics, material science, and software just to have something that won’t blow up on the test rig. The data to build a liquid engine isn’t easy to find, either: a lot of helpful info is classified or locked up in one of [Elon]’s file cabinets.

[Graham] over at Fubar Labs in New Jersey is working to change this. He’s developing an open source, 3D printed, liquid fuel rocket engine. Right now, it’s not going to fly, but that’s not the point: the first step towards developing a successful rocket is to develop a successful engine, and [Graham] is hard at work making this a reality.

This engine, powered by gaseous oxygen and ethanol, is designed for 3D printing. It’s actually a great use of the technology; SpaceX and NASA have produced 3D printed engine parts using DMLS printers, but [Graham] is using the much cheaper (and available at Shapeways) metal SLS printers to produce his engine. Rocket engines are extremely hard to manufacture with traditional methods, making 3D printing the perfect process for building a rocket engine.

So far, [Graham] has printed the engine, injector, and igniter, all for the purpose of shoving oxygen and ethanol into the combustion chamber, lighting it, and marveling at the Mach cones. You can see a video of that below, but there’s also a few incredible resources on GitHub, the Fubar Labs wiki, and a bunch of pictures and test results here.

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