- Rocket Lab, a small-launch startup in New Zealand, says it will soon try to recover one of its Electron rocket's boosters for the first time.
- Reusing boosters, as the Elon Musk-founded rocket company SpaceX now does routinely, can save millions of dollars in hardware per flight that's normally trashed at sea.
- Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck said the goal is to test a reentry and parachute system on November 15 with the company's "Return to Sender" mission.
- Though the booster will splash into the ocean for the test, the ultimate goal is to capture it in midair using a helicopter.
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Rocket Lab is about to attempt its first-ever recovery of a rocket booster that's flown a payload to space and fallen back to 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 lifting off and helping send 30 small satellites into orbit, the rocket's massive booster should plunge through the air, deploy a parachute, and gently splash down into the Pacific Ocean, where it will be recovered by boat.
Rocket Lab launches satellites for about $10 million per flight. If the booster doesn't return as a "smoldering stump," says CEO Peter Beck, who founded Rocket Lab in 2006, the company may soon start recovering and reusing flight hardware that's worth millions, yet is typically lost at sea.
Boosters accelerate a smaller rocket and a payload to thousands of miles per hours before detaching and falling to the ground or ocean. They are the biggest and most expensive part of a launch system, typically making up about 80% of its cost because they harbor multiple (and pricey) rocket engines.
SpaceX, founded by tech mogul Elon Musk in 2002, rocketed its first Falcon 9 booster to a safe landing in late 2015, and has since recovered and reused boosters dozens of times.
For years, however, Beck eschewed a rocket-landing system due to Electron's relatively diminutive size. The approach would add too much weight and gobble up too much of its payload capacity, whereas the math worked out for SpaceX's 23-story-tall Falcon 9 system.
"Things just don't scale nicely" with small rockets, Beck told reporters during a call on Wednesday. "This is a fundamental reason why I initially said that I don't think a small launch vehicle can be recovered."
But with growing industry demand to launch small satellites, and after seeing SpaceX's save gobs of money and time by recovering and reusing its boosters, Beck shifted his thinking.
"Being able to increase production is really the key driver. Even if it's economically neutral, the fact that we don't have to build more vehicles in the same factory is a really big advantage," Beck said. "But in saying that, if we can get it back and it's in wonderful condition, then of course, economically, it's also very powerful."
How Rocket Lab plans to test its booster recovery
While SpaceX fires the engines of its boosters to control descent and touch down on a landing pad, Rocket Lab went for a different approach.
Instead of letting a spent booster fall uselessly to Earth, Rocket Lab will use small thrusters to flip the rocket around, engines toward the ground, since those components are heaviest and most durable to extreme heating. The booster should then slow down through a rapid increase in atmospheric pressure that Beck calls "the wall," heating and straining the vehicle.
If the booster survives, a series of parachutes will deploy out of its top, helping slow down the vehicle to about 22 mph (36 kilometers per hour). For the "Return to Sender" test mission, the booster will splash into the Pacific Ocean, where a boat will crane it onto the deck, sail back to Rocket Lab's facility, and allow engineers to dissect and study the hardware.
Beck said the system, as currently designed, will reduce Electron's roughly 440-pound (200-kilogram) payload capacity by about 33 pounds (15 kilograms). That's about 7%, which is a relatively modest mass hit for such a significant new capability.
"We're very happy with where we've ended up," Beck said. But he noted "that may grow as we learn more" following the initial test.
Rocket Lab has chipped away at and tested key elements of its new system over the past 18 months, starting with a lot of computer modeling. Beck said those simulations revealed the punishment to an Electron booster caused by reentering Earth's atmosphere "was a lot more benign than we first anticipated," leading to the development and testing of other systems.
Guided reentries of a couple Electron boosters after their launch, along with numerous successful parachute and drop tests, have led Rocket Lab to feel confident enough to trial a recovery.
Ultimately, Beck said Rocket Lab wants to snag the parachuting booster in mid-air with a helicopter, drop it off on a boat, return it to dry land, and reuse it after minimal refurbishment.
"The ultimate goal here is to get it back in such a condition that we can put it back on the pad, get it back up, charge the batteries, and go again," Beck said. "If we can achieve that milestone, the economics certainly do change quite significantly."
Rocket Lab successfully tested the helicopter-capture maneuver on April 8 with a dummy rocket stage and recorded the feat on video. Beck says he isn't chasing a full-recovery test with a helicopter in November because the company doesn't fully understand how things will go down.
"The parachutes are no good if the stage is coming in backwards," Beck said.
Likewise, he added, the condition of the booster is incredibly important, as excessive damage may be more trouble to refurbish than its worth.
"If we've got a stage in just awesome condition, and everything functioned as fast as we expected, and everything was really safe, then we'll move really quickly to try and snatch it with a helicopter," Beck said. "If we've got kind of a smoldering stump, then there's really not too much point in going and catching a smoldering stump with a helicopter."
Rocket Lab plans to launch its "Return to Sender" mission between 8:44 p.m. ET and 11:34 p.m. ET on November 15 from New Zealand. However, the company gave itself until the end of November to fly the mission, should there be any weather delays or pre-launch glitches.
The company plans to stream video of the launch and a view from the parachuting booster live via YouTube.