Rocket Lab’s Electron streaking into space on December 6th | Image: Sam Toms
Small satellite launcher Rocket Lab successfully flew its 10th mission this morning from New Zealand, sending seven small spacecraft into orbit above Earth. While the primary goal of the flight was a success, Rocket Lab also used the mission to test out a key maneuver with its rocket — one that could allow the company to reuse its vehicles in the future.
Rocket Lab’s one and only rocket is the Electron, a 55-foot-tall vehicle designed to send relatively small payloads into space. Like most rockets, each Electron only has the bandwidth for one flight. After deploying satellites into orbit, the rocket falls back to Earth and is basically out of commission. But in August, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck announced that the company was going to try things differently. The team is now working toward recovering part of the Electron after each flight in order to fly the vehicles back to space again. That way, the company can save itself from having to build an entirely new rocket for each mission, potentially making it cheaper for its customers to fly.
“in theory, we should be able to put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up, and go again.”
“The grand goal here is if we can capture the vehicle in wonderful condition, in theory, we should be able to put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up, and go again,” Beck said during the announcement in August.
Rocket Lab won’t be recovering its rockets like SpaceX, which has nearly perfected the ability to land its vehicles after launch. Instead, Rocket Lab’s plan is slightly more complicated. The Electron is meant to perform a guided reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, hopefully coming back in one piece. It’ll then deploy a parachute to slow the rocket’s descent. In an expertly choreographed air display, a helicopter will swoop in, snag the rocket, and carry it to a nearby ship.
Rocket Lab is still a long way off from catching the Electron with helicopters. But today, the company was able to test out one part of the recovery process: the guided reentry. It was a particularly difficult task since the rocket must make it through a very tough environment when coming back to Earth, which risks tearing the vehicle apart. “The rate at which the atmosphere approaches the [rocket] and builds up temperature and loads is just really, really enormous,” Beck explained to The Verge following the launch.
To combat these challenges, this particular Electron was outfitted with guidance and navigation computers that helped collect data during the rocket’s fall. It also had its control thrusters that helped to reorient the vehicle as it descended and a heat shield to keep the vehicle from heating up too much. The systems are all meant to work in tandem to guide the Electron through a very narrow corridor on its way down. If it’s in the exact right orientation, a big shockwave is created that allows the forces on the rocket to be manageable enough to keep the vehicle together.
“Really, this is the hardest bit.”
Ultimately it all worked, as the Electron came back to Earth in one piece, which is what Rocket Lab was hoping for. “This is why this flight is so important and why we’re so excited,” says Beck. “Really, this is the hardest bit. The hardest bit is to reenter a stage and keep it intact.”
Rocket Lab won’t be recovering the booster since it fell into the ocean just under the speed of sound. The next step for the company is to try this process again, and if it works, Rocket Lab may be ready to add a parachute to one of its Electron boosters. It’ll then try to deploy the parachute during a future flight. And if that goes smoothly, it’ll be time to grab a rocket with a helicopter. “I’d guess more than 50 percent of this program is now complete,” says Beck, referring to the reusability program.
Beck says that recovering its rockets is all in service of the company’s longer term goal: launching as frequently as possible. The company has been clear about its goal to launch upwards of 120 launches a year. “Really the genesis for recovery is, if we can get this thing back, we will be able to double production overnight,” says Beck. “And of course, if it proves that after refurbishment it’s lower cost, then we can pass it on to our customers.”
Along with perfecting reusability, Rocket Lab has a lot of ambitious plans for the next year. The company, which has been exclusively launching out of New Zealand, has also been working on a second launch site in Virginia at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility to help with launch frequency. So far, Rocket Lab has launched a total of 47 small satellites, and it has plans to fly its next set in the first weeks of 2020.
Update December 6th, 3:40PM ET: This article was updated to include additional insight from Peter Beck.