Rocket Lab Electron – Space Launch Report

Rocket Lab Electron - Space Launch Report

Rocket Lab was founded in New Zealand in 2007 by Peter Beck. It launched a sounding rocket named Atea 1, the first private launch to space in the Southern Hemisphere, in November 2009.  In December 2010, Rocket Lab won a U.S. contract from the Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS) to study low cost small satellite launchers.

In 2013, the company began development of the two-stage Electron orbital rocket, designed to orbit small (or “mini”) satellites.  The effort included development of the Rutherford engine, named for the New Zealand-born British physicist Ernest Rutherford, to power Electron.  Rutherford used brushless DC motors powered by lithium polymer batteries to power its turbopump, replacing the usual gas generator.

Rocket Lab announced its Electron plans to the world in 2015.  NASA awarded the company a Venture Class Launch Services contract on October 31, 2015.  The $6.95 million contract was for the launch of a NASA payload to low earth orbit on the fifth Electron, at the time expected to fly between late 2016 and early 2017.

Electron Stage Testing

Rocket Lab Electron - Space Launch Report

Electron was designed to orbit small satellites for about $4.9 million per mission. The design adopted innovative carbon composite tanks to hold both the kerosene fuel and the cryogenic liquid oxygen oxidizer. Nine Rutherford engines, each producing 1.739 tonnes of sea-level thrust at a 303 second vacuum specific impulse, powered the first stage. A single Rutherford Vacuum Engine powered the second stage, producing 2.268 tonnes thrust at a 333 second specific impulse. 

Electron weighs 12.55 tonnes at liftoff, rising on 15.65 tonnes thrust.  It is 1.2 meters diameter and stands stand 17 meters tall.  Its first stage is 12.1 meters tall, the second stage 2.4 meters, and the payload fairing 2.5 meters.   The rocket is designed to lift 150 kilogram payloads to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit.

After the company sought and received U.S. capital, it established headquarters in Los Angeles, California and announced plans for some manufacturing to be done in the U.S. As the first launch approached, however, production, testing, and engineering remained in Auckland, New Zealand, and a single launch site had been built on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand’s North Island.  The launch site was completed on September 27, 2016.

On March 21, 2016, Rocket Lab announced that it had qualified its Rutherford engine for flight. Development spanned two years and more than 200 engine hot fire tests. One month later, the company announced that the Electron second stage had been qualified, with test firings on the company’s test stand.  The first stage was qualified on December 13, 2016. 

Also read: Dnepr – Space Launch Report

Electron Second Stage with Rutherford Vacuum Engine

Rocket Lab Electron - Space Launch Report

Rocket Lab delivered its first Electron vehicle to Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 at Mahia on February 16, 2017.  A series of tests were planned before the rocket, named “It’s a Test”, would be ready to fly.   It would be the first of three planned test flights before Rocket Lab begins flying payloads for paying customers.

On March  22, 2017, Rocket Lab announced that it had garnered $75 million in new financing, bringing its total to $148 million.  It also announced that it was opening an office in Huntington Beach, California that included production floor space.

Vehicle Configurations

(metric tons)
[1] 180 x 300 km x 45 deg
[2] 500 km x 98.6 deg
(metric tons)
Electron0.225 t [1]
0.150 t [2]
Stg 1 (9 x Rutherford) + Stg 2 (1 x Rutherford Vacuum) + PLF17 m12.55 t

Vehicle Components

 Stg 1Stg 2Payload
Diameter (m)1.2 m1.2 m1.2 m
Length (m)12.1 m2.4 m2.5 m
Propellant Mass (tonnes)9.25 t2.05 t 
Empty Mass (tonnes)0.95 t0.25 t 
Total Mass (tonnes)10.2 t2.30 t~0.05 t
Engine9 x Rutherford1 x Rutherford Vacuum 
Engine MfgrRocket LabRocket Lab 
(SL tons)
15.65 t  
(Vac tons)
18.82 t avg2.27 t 
ISP (SL sec) 
ISP (Vac sec)303 s333 s 
Burn Time (sec)   
No. Engines91 

Electron Launch Log


DATE     VEHICLE           ID      PAYLOAD                 MASS(t) SITE*     ORBIT*
05/25/17 Electron          01      It's a Test                     MA 1     [FTO][1] 
[1] Inaugural launch.  Failed to orbit.
 Site Code:

MA = Mahia Peninsula, North Island, New Zealand 

 Orbit Code:

EEO/M = Molynia (12-hr) Elliptical Earth Orbit
FTO = Failed to Orbit
FSO = Failed Suborbital
GTO = Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit
GTO+ = Supersynchronous or High Perigee Transfer Orbit
GTO- = Subsynchronous Transfer Orbit
GTOi = Inclined GTO
GEO = Geosynchronous Orbit
HCO = Heliocentric (solar) Orbit
HTO = High Earth Transfer Orbit
LEO = Low Earth Orbit
LEO/S = Sun Synchronous Low Earth Orbit
LEO/P = Polar Low Earth Orbit
MEO = Medium Earth Orbit
MTO = Medium Earth Transfer Orbit 
SUB = Suborbital

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