Rocket Lab gets set for its first ever booster recovery attempt
Last year, we saw some details start to emerge around Rocket Lab's vision to recover its spacecraft for reuse, plans that involved catching part of its Electron booster in mid-air with a helicopter. The private company is set to take an important step toward this objective, announcing that it will make its first attempt to recover the rocket’s first stage during a mission scheduled for later this month.
Much like SpaceX has done over the past few years, Rocket Lab hopes to trim some of the costs from its launch operations be reusing elements of the Electron booster, which is worth around US$5 million apiece. Part of this strategy involves using parachutes, a helicopter and a special grappling hook to collect the first stage as it drifts back down to the Earth, a technique it was able to successfully demonstrate using a dummy first stage earlier this year.
As part of its real-world recovery strategy, the helicopter technique is the final phase of the plan. Initially, the company will focus on bringing the first stage back to Earth to land safely in the ocean, where it will be collected by a recovery vessel and hauled back to Rocket Lab’s production facility for refurbishment.
Today, the company revealed that it will make its first attempt at this on its upcoming “Return to Sender” mission, in which Electron will deliver 30 small satellites into orbit. Once the payloads are deployed, the rocket will use a “reaction control system” to re-orient itself for re-entry, deploy a small drogue parachute to slow its descent, and then another large parachute as it nears the ocean surface to make a controlled splashdown.
“Recovering the first stage of a small launch vehicle is uncharted territory,” says Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO. “What we’re trying to achieve with Electron is an incredibly difficult and complex challenge, but one we’re willing to pursue to further boost launch cadence and deliver even more frequent launch opportunities to small satellite operators.”
Rocket Lab has built technology into the Electron’s first stage specifically for the recovery phase, including guidance and navigation hardware and flight computers. Even if the attempt is unsuccessful, the company says there will still be a lot to gain from the exercise.
“Bringing a whole first stage back intact is the ultimate goal, but success for this mission is really about gaining more data, particularly on the drogue and parachute deployment system,” Beck continues. “Regardless of the condition the stage comes back in, we’ll learn a great deal from this test and use it to iterate forward for the next attempt.”
The launch window for the Return to Sender mission opens on November 16, lifting off from Rocket Lab’s complex in New Zealand.
Source: Rocket Lab