World's First Battery-Powered Rocket Could Slash Launch Costs

By Maddie Stone on at

"The world’s first battery-powered rocket" not only sounds like something straight out of science fiction, it could very well upend the space industry by ushering in a new wave of frequent and low-cost rocket launches.

The carbon composite “Electron,” unveiled last week by the Auckland-based company Rocket Lab, is a pretty radical departure from its modern-day competitors. Rather than using expensive and complex gas generators, it employs electric motors and lithium polymer batteries to drive its turbo pumps. It’s also the first hydrocarbon engine to use 3D printing for all of its critical components. And rather than focusing on big, infrequent payloads, Electron is aiming small.

That is, Electron is designed carry mini satellites — up to 100 kilograms — to a 500 km orbit above the Earth. While that may doesn’t sound amazingly impressive, given that the average Earth-orbiting satellite today weighs upwards of 2,000 kg, there’s a rub. As Rocket Lab’s chief executive Peter Beck told Quartz, Electron can shoot small payloads into orbit for less than $5 million. That’s a fraction of what it costs to launch bigger and more powerful rockets today. (For comparison, the Space X Falcon 9, which launched 6 times last year, cost about $60 million per launch.) With 30 launch commitments already lined up, Rocket Lab is hoping to begin shooting its Electron skyward every month in 2016.

What this could potentially do is usher in a new wave of space traffic, with universities, private companies and other small enterprises using Electron to hitch a cheaper and faster ride into space to deliver a small payload. This means we might soon bear witness to a torrent of small, lightweight space satellites, which could be used for everything from climate monitoring to creating a global internet. (Which sounds, uh, awesome. But also: lots more space junk.)

Still, Electron’s first test launch is slated for autumn, so we’ve still got a bit of a wait before we know for sure whether this potentially game-changing rocket can deliver all that it promises.

Read more about the tech at the heart of the first battery powered rocket over at Quartz.

Top image: Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engine, via Rocket Lab