There is a TOKYO era in which satellites can be easily launched. Advances in microminiaturization technology are making it possible to make palm-sized satellites. Launch costs have dropped dramatically as rockets have become lighter.
More than 20,000 satellites for observation and communication will be launched into space in the next 10 years. A total of 30,000 satellites, including those currently in operation, will fly above the earth, and this is expected to revolutionize life on the ground through the use of satellite data.
When you visit Rocket Lab's website, a small rocket development company based in New Zealand and the U.S., an eye-catching statement jumps out at you. Rocket Lab launched 29 times as of December 2022 and sent more than 150 satellites into space after successfully putting its first satellite into orbit in 2018.
We visited its factory to get a closer look at the front lines of satellite development and manufacturing.
There were many rockets in the process of being manufactured in the factory in Auckland, northern New Zealand. They were the company's Electron model, a small rocket for launching small satellites. The company has about one rocket per month.
Our first impression of their rocket is that it is quite small. It is about a quarter of the size of the current model of the Falcon 9 rocket 70 meters in length of Elon Musk's SpaceX, with an overall length of about 18 meters and a diameter of about 1.2 meters.
The cost of launching a small satellite, which was previously about $50 million, has been reduced to about $7.5 million. This is a major boost to space development by the private sector. The Electron can carry up to 300 kilograms of satellites weighing up to 300 kilograms, when it is launched into Low Earth orbit LEO at an altitude of 2,000 kilometers or less. The total weight of the rocket is about 13 tons when fully fueled before takeoff.
Nine engines are built into the first stage of the rocket. Rocket Lab produces and develops its Rutherford engines, which are key components, in-house at its U.S. base.
In a world first, the company uses 3 D printing for all major parts of the engines in the Electron, including the combustion chamber and pumps. This way, it has achieved a complex and lightweight structure that was difficult to achieve with conventional manufacturing technology.
Rutherford's breakthrough is the use of an electrically driven pump that pumps fuel into the combustion chamber. The gas generated by fuel combustion is generated by the pump in a typical rocket engine. The main components can be printed within 24 hours.