Rocket Lab fires up space-flown engine in reusability milestone

Rocket Lab just took another step toward booster reusability.

Rocket Lab fired up a Rutherford engine from one of its space-flown Electron boosters this week for the very first time. The test fire is a milestone in the company's efforts to create boosters that can go to space and back again repeatedly,  as the first stages of SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 already do.

Early data from the 200-second test fire show that the engine "performed to the same standard of a newly built Rutherford engine," Rocket Lab officials stated in a press release on Thursday (Sept. 1).

Related: Rocket Lab and its Electron booster (photos)

Electron is designed to give small satellites dedicated rides to orbit. The 59-foot-tall (18 meters) rocket features nine Rutherford engines in its first stage and one Rutherford in its upper stage, as well as a smaller Curie engine in an optional third or "kick" stage.

Rocket Lab is working to make Electron first stages reusable. The ultimate goal is to snag falling boosters with a helicopter shortly after liftoff — something it accomplished during a mission in May of this year. The chopper soon dropped the booster into the Pacific Ocean, but Rocket Lab retrieved it with a boat and hauled it back to shore.

And that's the booster that donated the Rutherford engine for this week's test.

"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," Rocket Lab founder and CEO Beck said in Thursday's press release.

Rocket Lab is also working on a next-generation rocket called Neutron for bigger payloads, like the broadband satellites built for internet megaconstellations. A "fulsome update" about Neutron is expected on Sept. 21, according to past comments from Beck.

Rocket Lab is also moving farther out into space, having recently launched NASA's CAPSTONE cubesat on a trip toward lunar orbit. A private mission to Venus next year is in the works on another Electron.

The company's last launch, nearly a month ago, lofted a U.S. military satellite to orbit on Aug. 4.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: