Electron is a two-stage, partially recoverable orbital launch vehicle developed by Rocket Lab, an American aerospace company founded in New Zealand with a wholly-owned New Zealand subsidiary. It is powered by Rutherford engines which are the first electric-pump-fed engines to power an orbital-class rocket. Electron achieved the feat of reaching orbit on January 21, 2018. The rocket is also the first to use fully carbon-composite tanks (not just carbon-overwrap pressure vessels, the body of the Electron is just carbon fiber, no liner)
Electron is designed to launch a 200–300 kg payload to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit, suitable for CubeSats and other small payloads. In October 2018, Rocket Lab opened a factory large enough to produce more than 50 rockets per year according to the company. Like SpaceX, Electron has also shown the capability of recovering the first stage, having recovered it twice using a completely different method than SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
Electron uses two stages, both being powered by Rutherford engines. These electric-pump-fed engines are powered by lithium-polymer batteries. Another interesting part to know is almost all of the engine parts are 3D printed. That saves time and money in the manufacturing process.
To reduce the downsides of electric motors (carrying heavy batteries which don’t get lighter when you deplete them), the second stage performs a unique “battery hot-swap” maneuver where two depleted batteries are jettisoned as the stage transitions to using a third, full battery. Watch the video below for a minute.
Having fun with mission names
The electron has launched 18 times, with each mission given a whimsical name. The rocket’s first (partially successful) flight was called “It’s a Test” and occurred in May 2017. The second, fully successful launch was called “Still Testing,” while the third was named “It’s Business Time.” (!!)
The next mission was called “This One’s for Pickering” after pioneering New Zealand rocket engineer William Pickering, followed by “Two Thumbs Up,” “That’s a Funny-Looking Cactus,” “Make it Rain” and the eighth mission, “Look Ma, No Hands”, which occurred in August 2019.
Rocket Lab has decided not to go SpaceX’s route of using retrograde propulsion for recovering the first stage. Instead, they will use the atmosphere to slow down the booster in what is known as “aerothermal decelerator” technology. Watch the below video for understanding the concept.
Video credits: Rocket Lab
In the actual test version, they were able to meet their target and further improvements are in progress. Watch the actual test video below.
Video credits: Rocket Lab