Update May 2, 7:50 pm ET: Shortly after launch, Rocket Lab’s Electron fell back to Earth and deployed its parachutes as planned. He then came into view of the company helicopter, which then successfully caught the rocket for a few moments. However, the helicopter pilot noted “different payload characteristics” that Rocket Lab had not experienced during previous tests.
“At his discretion, the pilot unloaded the stage for a successful splashdown, where it was retrieved by our ship for transport back to our factory,” said Murielle Baker, communications representative for Rocket Lab, during the live broadcast of the launch. “However, the stage is in excellent condition and we look forward to evaluating it in detail when it is back here at the factory.” The remainder of the launch continued as planned, with Rocket Lab deploying all 34 satellites aboard the flight.
original story: After nearly three years of preparation, small satellite launch company Rocket Lab will attempt to catch one of its rockets in the air today, after launching the vehicle into space from New Zealand. As the rocket falls back to Earth, Rocket Lab will use a helicopter to try to snag the booster just before it hits the ocean. That way, the rocket can potentially be launched again.
This will be the first time Rocket Lab has attempted to catch one of its Electron rockets with a helicopter, part of the company’s plan to recover and reuse its vehicles after launch. Until now, Electron, designed to launch batches of small satellites into low-Earth orbit, has been primarily an expendable rocket. Most of these rockets fall back to Earth after each flight and are eventually destroyed.
But by capturing and reusing its rockets after flight, Rocket Lab hopes to reduce the manufacturing cost associated with building an entirely new rocket for each of its missions. The goal is similar to that of SpaceX, which has become famous for landing and reusing its rockets after flight. Rocket Lab also claims that recovering and reusing your rockets could also help speed up your rate of flight. “By bringing one back, you just save a huge amount of time where you don’t have to build a whole new rocket from scratch,” says Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab. the edge. “Obviously we will see some good cost savings, but I think the most important thing for us at the moment is to get the vehicles back on the production line.”
When Electron launches into space, the vehicle’s onboard computers guide the booster back through Earth’s atmosphere, maneuvering it just the right way so it remains intact during the fall to the ground. Once the rocket reaches an altitude of about 8.3 miles, it deploys a drop parachute to break its fall, followed by a main parachute. While the rocket floats calmly towards the ocean, that is when the helicopter will arrive and try to capture the parachute line with a hanging hook, avoiding a splash in the salty sea water.
Rocket Lab has been working on its turnaround plan since 2019, when it announced it would try to make its Electron rockets reusable. The first major test came in December 2019, when Rocket Lab tested its guidance and control system on Electron. For Rocket Lab, guiding Electron’s fall through the atmosphere is one of the most difficult parts of this entire process. “I think a lot of people think that the hardest thing is to catch the rocket, and that certainly is hard,” says Beck. “But really, from an engineering standpoint, the hardest thing has been making sure the rocket survives re-entry.” The rocket reaches speeds of over 5,000 miles per hour during its fall, and must remain in one piece as searing plasma builds up around the vehicle.
Rocket Lab successfully launched intact Electron rockets in the ocean, and the company retrieved three rockets from the water to learn more about their journeys back to Earth. The company’s engineers were able to open the rockets and disassemble some of their components to make them fly again. Rocket Lab also demonstrated Electron’s ability to deploy his various parachutes after launch. And the company used a helicopter to capture a dummy rocket in the air (although the fake booster didn’t fall from space but was launched from another nearby helicopter).
Now, Rocket Lab is putting all these steps together with its next release, called “There and Back Again,” a reference to the nature of flight and also a fitting tribute to New Zealand, where The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were. filmed. While the company has rehearsed each step, they will still need to do all of them together for a launch. “The other really logistically challenging part is: can you find a rocket under a parachute in the middle of the ocean?” Beck says. “I mean, just moments ago, I was traveling at eight times the speed of sound.”
If the helicopter successfully catches Electron, the company will fly the propellant back to New Zealand and unload it onto a truck. The rocket could also be left in a boat first if the flight home is too challenging. Rocket Lab will then take a closer look at the vehicle to see how it fared. Going forward, Rocket Lab will finally be selective about which missions are brought back. Recovering flights need more onboard systems, which means the vehicle can’t carry as much into space. Also, the path Electron takes to orbit will influence Rocket Lab’s decision to attempt a helicopter capture. “Some of the trajectories are not very suitable for recovery,” says Beck. “So there will not be 100 percent reuse on all vehicles. It will probably be 50 percent or more.”
But first, Rocket Lab has to prove that he can catch a falling rocket with a helicopter. The company has delayed the launch several times as it waits for ideal weather conditions. Now, “Rage and Back” is scheduled to take off at 6:35 p.m. ET, with the helicopter being captured sometime after the main parachute is deployed, approximately eight and a half minutes after launch. Morgan Bailey, director of communications for Rocket Lab, says the company will try to live stream the event and there will even be a camera on the helicopter’s capture line. But the company warns that maintaining the connection at all times will be difficult.
“Space is tough, but so is live TV” bailey tweeted.
Update May 2, 4:50 pm ET: This post has been updated with additional information on how the booster can return home.