Why isn’t an electric rocket engine possible?

Rocket Lab, New Zealand’s orbital launch system company, has created the Electron rocket.

It looks pretty normal, don’t you think? It’s only a fraction smaller than your typical orbital launch system. It looks like any other rocket.

Rocket Lab also designed nine Rutherford engines to power the Electron.

Still looks like your average rocket engine, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It works just like any other liquid-propellant rocket engine, by pumping fuel and oxidiser into the combustion chamber to produce hot high-pressure exhaust gasses. These exhaust gasses get accelerated through the nozzle and produce thrust, lifting the rocket up.

The Rutherford engine does just that, but what is special about the Rutherford is the way it actually pumps the propellants into the combustion chamber.

Propellers must be pumped into the combustion chamber under extremely high pressure.

This is done by pumping some of the propellant into an additional combustion chamber. The fuel and oxidiser react in this chamber just as they do in the main combustion chamber to create hot, high-pressure exhaust gases. These gases spin a turbine connected to the propellant pump with a shaft. The propellant is then pushed through the engine by the pumps.

But in the Rutherford engine, the turbine mechanism is replaced with an electric motor. The motor spins the pumps, which pushes the propellant into the combustion chamber.

So yeah, technically this makes the Rutherford an electrically powered engine.



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