COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.–New Zealand entrepreneur Peter Beck on Tuesday unveiled his electric, liquid oxygen/kerosene, 3D printed engine called Rutherford with a goal of using it in his Electron battery-powered rocket by the end of this year.

Beck told Defense Daily on Monday the brilliance of the Rutherford engine is replacing the thermodynamics of a traditional, gas generated engine with computer software. Unlike traditional propulsion cycles, the 4,600 pounds of thrust (lbf) adopts a entirely new production cycle, making use of high-performance brushless DC electric motors and lithium-polymer batteries to drive its turbo pumps, according to a company statement. 

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck and his Electron rocket. Photo: Rocket Lab.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck and his Electron rocket. Photo: Rocket Lab.

“It’s an infinitely more simple way to solve a problem and it’s much more cost effective,” Beck said here Monday at the National Space Symposium (NSS).

Beck said the Rutherford engine will provide a cost savings of “a couple orders of magnitude” compared to traditional rocket engines. Beck also said he picked the liquid oxygen/kerosene engine because it is the lowest cost propellant available.

Rocket Lab said Rutherford is the first liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use 3D printing for all primary components, including its engine chamber, injector, pumps and main propellant valves. Using this process, Rocket Lab said its engineers created complex, yet lightweight, structures previously unattainable through traditional techniques. This reduces the build time from months to days while increasing affordability, the company said.

The Electron rocket will also feature a unique method of payload integration, Beck told reporters on Tuesday. Electron’s upper stage is designed with the capability to disconnect the payload integration from the main booster assembly, according to Rocket Lab. Sealed integrated payloads can then be transported back to the company where integration with the main booster can occur in a matter of hours.

Rocket Lab said this payload integration approach eliminates the risk of cascading delays and allows customers to regain control of the integration process, using their own preferred facilities and personnel.

Beck told Defense Daily he’s still looking for a United States launch site and he’s considering all federal ranges launch companies would “normally consider.” Beck downplayed the importance of quickly finding a U.S. launch site, saying he’s flying out of New Zealand for affordability and logistical reasons. As opposed to the difficulty launching repeatedly at a quick pace in the United States due to the high volume of air traffic, Beck said all he needs to launch in New Zealand is a $400 payment to the government.

Though Beck downplayed that he hasn’t yet found a U.S. launch site, Beck said he does anticipate U.S. customers desiring to fly out of the United States. Beck said he’s not considering building his own launch range in the United States, which is what he is doing in New Zealand. This, he said, is critical to reaching his goal of launching at a rate of once per week.

Beck said he’s secured about 30 commercial launch customers to date, but has not yet secured any government, nor U.S. government customers. He declined to say what customers he’s secured nor types of payloads he’ll be launching, but said they run the gamut from government customers, to early stage start up and Silicon Valley venture companies.

Rocket Lab is privately funded with major investors including: Khosla Ventures, K1W1, Bessemer Ventures and Lockheed Martin [LMT]. Beck said Lockheed Martin is providing “purely strategic” direction and the company has nothing to do with any technical development.

“Lockheed has a number of programs that would really benefit from an affordable launch platform,” Beck said. “Likewise, we’ve had a longstanding relationship with Lockheed–they’re a great strategic partner.”

Rocket Lab said it has a dedicated launch price of $4.9 million for Electron, which it said is capable of delivering payloads of up to 100 kg to a 500 km sun-synchronous orbit. Rocket Lab said this is the target range for the high growth constellation satellite market.

“As more satellite companies are able to quickly reach orbit, we will see immense advancements in communication and imaging technologies, which has the potential to drastically change our world,” Beck said in a statement. “(This includes) improved traffic reporting to crop planning to even mitigating the life-threatening damages of natural disasters.”