Rocket Lab has successfully test-fired a reused Rutherford first-stage engine for the first time. This is a significant technical achievement in the Company’s efforts to make its Electron launch vehicle the world’s first reusable orbital small rocket.
The space tech company conducted the full duration, full-thrust test fire of the refurbished Rutherford engine last week at the Company’s engine test facility.
The engine was previously successfully launched to space and returned to Earth during Rocket Lab’s recent recovery mission, ‘There And Back Again,’ launched in May 2022. This was the first time Rocket Lab successfully attempted a mid-air capture of Electron’s first stage, using parachutes on the rocket to slow its descent from space before a helicopter plucked the rocket from the sky as it approached Earth’s surface. The Electron stage was ultimately released for a soft ocean splashdown before it was collected by vessel and returned to Rocket Lab’s production complex.
The refurbished Rutherford engine passed all of the same rigorous acceptance tests Rocket Lab performs for every engine. That involved 200 seconds of engine fire and multiple restarts, with data showing the engine produced a full thrust of 21 kNs within 1000 milliseconds of ignition. This Rutherford engine will now continue as an engine life leader for future Rutherford development.
The company is now planning another attempt to catch Electron with a helicopter again, but this time to fly it back to land, which is scheduled to launch before the end of the year.
“Being able to refly Electron with minimal refurbishment is the ultimate goal, and so the fact that the recovered components on this engine performed on the test stand with a minimal rework is further validation that we’re on the right path,” says Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder, and CEO. “If we can achieve this high level of performance from engine components recovered from the ocean, then I’m optimistic and incredibly excited about what we can do when we bring back dry engines under a helicopter next time.”