Almost a year ago, commercial launch provider Vector Space Systems, which was founded by the original SpaceX team and based in Tucson, successfully launched its P20 sub-orbital satellite prototype, featuring an entirely 3D printed injector. The company used another 3D printed injector this week, when it launched a test flight of its Vector-R launch vehicle engineering model; the small rocket was built for the specific purpose of carrying small payloads up into space. The model was made up of the 3D printed injector and the Vector-R first-stage engine. The rocket, which was launched from the Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) site in Mojave, California, was scheduled to reach an altitude of 4,500 feet.

“2017 has already been a ground-breaking year for Vector as we continue testing full-scale vehicle engineering models to demonstrate functionality and flight operations. The success of this test not only sets the standard for the swift mobile development of our launch vehicles, but also furthers our mission to revolutionize the spaceflight industry and increase speed to orbit,” said Jim Cantrell, Vector co-founder and CEO.

The Vector Space Systems Vector-R microsatellite rocket, shown here before a test launch in Mojave, California.

The Vector-R rocket is the perfect vehicle to launch microsatellites, as it was specifically designed to fly payloads of up to 130 lbs to low-Earth orbit. Microsatellites are a subclass of small satellites, weighing between 22 and 220 lbs; small, lightweight, often 3D printed CubeSats fall into this category. These small craft are attractive to space agencies and companies for applications like communications and Earth imaging, but often only hitch rides into space by tagging along, or “piggybacking,” on bigger payloads sent up by large rockets. But Vector wants to change this, and make it possible for the operators of microsatellites to send these smaller payloads into space more often, without having to rely on larger payloads.

According to its website, “Vector is the first launch vehicle built exclusively for the microsatellite market. This vehicle is ‘right-sized’ for the new generation of microsatellites and enables reliable and frequent access to orbit.”

Vector won a grant from NASA’s Science, Technology and Mission Directorate (STMD) Flight Opportunities program, which it used to help develop its 3D printed engine injector. The program, managed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Florida, chooses the most promising and innovative technologies from the government, academia, and the industry, like Vector, and tests them on commercial launch vehicles. Thanks to the STMD grant, Vector was able to design and test its 3D printed engine injector. Thanks to 3D printing, we know that injectors can be manufactured in less time at a lower cost, and Vector’s instrument was printed as a single piece of hardware, instead of separate pieces that need to be attached later.

John Peugeot, project manager for 3D additive manufacturing, who’s working with Vector on the 3D printed engine injector, said, “With this successful in-flight operation of an additively manufactured injector, we have now moved the maturity of this technology to the next level for small launch vehicles. This represents a critical step in moving AM hardware beyond laboratory testing and toward qualification for real-world applications.”

The Vector-R rocket by Vector Space Systems heads skyward on its first test launch from Mojave, California.

Vector has scheduled a second test flight for its Vector-R rocket for this summer, and hopes to start commercial launches in 2018, recently announcing a plan to launch the rocket from Launch Complex 46 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which is operated by the state-backed economic development agency Space Florida. The company has set some rigorous goals for itself, planning to make a total of 12 commercial launches with the Vector-R in 2019, and up to 100 per year once it’s reached full launch capacity. In addition, Vector is also working on its Vector-H (Vector Heavy) rocket, which will carry payloads of up to 275 lbs. to low-Earth orbit. Discuss in the Vector forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Space.com / Images: Vector Space Systems]

 

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