Rocket Lab will soon attempt its first-ever rocket booster recovery, a SpaceX-like capability that could save the company millions per launch


  • Rocket Lab, a small launch startup in New Zealand, says it will soon try to retrieve one of its Electron rocket boosters for the first time.

  • Reusing boosters, as the space company SpaceX founded by Elon Musk regularly does, can save millions of dollars in flight hardware that is normally destroyed at sea.

  • Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck said the goal is to test a re-entry and parachute system on November 15 with the company’s “Return to Sender” mission.

  • Even though the booster will splash into the ocean for testing, the ultimate goal is to catch it in mid-air using a helicopter.

  • Visit the Business Insider home page for more stories.

Rocket Lab is about to attempt its first ever recovery of a rocket that carried a payload into space and landed back on Earth.

The mission, dubbed “Return to Sender” and scheduled for November 15, marks the New Zealand startup’s 16th flight of its six-story Electron rocket. After taking off and helping send 30 small satellites into orbit, the rocket’s massive booster should plummet into the air, deploy a parachute, and gently splash into the Pacific Ocean, where it will be recovered by boat.

Rocket Lab launches satellites for approximately $ 10 million per flight. If the booster doesn’t return as a “smoking stump,” says CEO Peter Beck, who founded Rocket Lab in 2006, the company may soon begin recovering and reusing flight hardware that is worth millions, but typically gets lost in. sea.

The boosters accelerate a smaller rocket and payload to thousands of miles per hour before detaching and falling to the ground or into the ocean. They are the largest and most expensive part of a launch system, typically accounting for around 80% of its cost because they house more (and expensive) rocket engines.

SpaceX, founded by tech mogul Elon Musk in 2002, launched its first Falcon 9 booster towards a safe landing in late 2015, and has since recovered and reused boosters dozens of times.

For years, however, Beck has avoided a missile landing system due to Electron’s relatively small size. The approach would add too much weight and gobble up too much of its payload capacity, while the math worked for SpaceX’s 23-story-tall Falcon 9 system.

“Things just don’t fit together well” with small flares, Beck told reporters on a call Wednesday. “This is a major reason why I initially said I don’t think a small launch vehicle can be salvaged.”

But with the growing demand from the industry to launch small satellites and after seeing SpaceX save time and money by salvaging and reusing its boosters, Beck changed his mind.

“Being able to increase production is really the key factor. While it’s economically neutral, the fact that we don’t have to build multiple vehicles in the same factory is a big plus, “Beck said.” But saying that, if we can get it back and it’s in wonderful condition, of course, economically, it’s also very powerful. “.

How Rocket Lab plans to test its recovery booster

While SpaceX fires its booster engines to control descent and land on a landing pad, Rocket Lab has taken a different approach.

Instead of letting a spent booster drop unnecessarily on Earth, Rocket Lab will use small thrusters to flip the rocket, the motors towards the ground, as those components are heavier and more resistant to extreme heating. The booster should then slow down through a rapid rise in atmospheric pressure which Beck calls “the wall,” warming and straining the vehicle.

If the booster survives, a series of parachutes will deploy from its top, helping slow the vehicle to approximately 22 mph (36km / h). For the “Return to Sender” test mission, the booster will splash into the Pacific Ocean, where a boat will load it onto the deck, return to the Rocket Lab facility, and allow engineers to dissect and study the hardware.

Beck said the system, as currently designed, will reduce Electron’s approximately 440 pounds (200 kilograms) carrying capacity by approximately 33 pounds (15 kilograms). That’s about 7%, which is a relatively modest mass success for such a significant new capability.

“We are very happy with where we are now,” Beck said. But he noted “it may grow as we learn more” after the initial test.

Rocket Lab has been cutting and testing key elements of its new system over the past 18 months, starting with a lot of computer modeling. Beck said those simulations revealed that the punishment for an electron amplifier caused by re-entering Earth’s atmosphere “was much more favorable than we expected,” leading to the development and testing of other systems.

The guided reentry of a couple of electron boosters after their launch, along with numerous successful parachute and fall tests, led Rocket Lab to feel confident enough to try a recovery.

Eventually, Beck said Rocket Lab wants to grab the skydiving booster in mid-air with a helicopter, leave it on a boat, bring it back to land, and reuse it after a minimal refurb.

“The ultimate goal here is to get it back to a condition where you can put it back on the pad, reset it, charge the batteries and start over,” Beck said. “If we can achieve this, the economy will certainly change quite significantly.”

Rocket Lab successfully tested the helicopter capture maneuver on April 8 with a mock rocket and recorded the feat on video. Beck says he’s not on the hunt for a full recovery test with a helicopter in November because the company doesn’t fully understand how things will go.

“Parachutes aren’t good if the stage is going backwards,” Beck said.

Likewise, he added, the condition of the booster is incredibly important, as excessive damage can be more difficult to restore than its value.

“If we have a stage in fantastic condition, and everything worked as fast as we expected, and everything was really safe, then we will move very fast and try to rip it off with a helicopter,” Beck said. “If we have some kind of smoking stump, then it really doesn’t make much sense to go get a smoking log in a helicopter.”

Rocket Lab plans to launch its “Return to Sender” mission between 8:44 PM ET and 11:34 PM ET on November 15 from New Zealand. However, the company allowed itself until the end of November to fly the mission, in case of weather delays or pre-launch anomalies.

The company plans to stream the launch video and a view from the skydiving relay live via YouTube.

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