Rocket Lab Plans To Launch New, Affordable Rocket Engine Later This Year

A partially 3D-printed rocket engine joins the space race

Illustration of the Electron rocket in orbit

Illustration of the Electron rocket in orbit

The Electron's main engine just passed a flight qualification test.Rocket Lab

A new rocket engine is ready to fly. A video posted by the Los Angeles and New Zealand-based Rocket Lab shows the company's new Rutherford engine belching flames and smoke, just the way a rocket engine should. The burn lasts for a full 2 minutes and 40 seconds, completing an important flight qualification test.

The company says the engine will now be ready for its first test flight in the second half of 2016. The launch will be part of the development program for the Electron rocket, whose liftoff will be powered by 9 Rutherford engines.

The Rutherford engine is small and will not pack as much punch as its competitors, but Rocket Lab thinks it will be able to launch small satellites into orbit at a low cost. An Electron launch is expected to cost about $5 million, compared to SpaceX's $60 million launches.

Notably, the Rutherford is made primarily out of 3D printed parts. It also uniquely uses battery-powered electric motors to power the pumps that deliver propellant to the rocket's combustion chamber.

"Rutherford started as a clean sheet of paper. Without the burden of heritage engines, we were able to make the most of today's most advanced technologies in ways not attempted before," said Rocket Lab Propulsion Lead Lachlan Matchett in a statement.

The company now plans to scale up production of the engine for test and commercial launches.