Rocket Lab Will Try to Recover Next Electron’s First Stage

Rocket Lab Will Try to Recover Next Electron’s First Stage

Rocket Lab announced today that it will try to recover the first stage of its Electron rocket on the very next launch, number 16, later this month, rather than waiting for the 17th as planned. This launch already has garnered special interest not only because it will place 30 small satellites and a 3-D printed gnome into orbit, but because 1 dollar will be donated to a children’s hospital in New Zealand for every person who views it on Rocket Lab’s website.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck revealed last year that the company has decided to recover and reuse Electron first stages, reversing an earlier decision not to pursue reusability because it is quite complex for small launch vehicles that offer little mass margin. He said new technology now made it feasible.

Several tests have been conducted off New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, site of Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1, and the plan was to make the first actual recovery attempt on the 17th launch.

Credit: Rocket Lab

In a media conference call yesterday, Beck announced they are ready earlier than expected and will do it on the 16th launch.  The company assigns whimsical names to its launches and this one is aptly designated “Return to Sender.”  The 14-day launch window opens November 15, 8:44-11:34 pm Eastern Standard Time (November 16, 1:44 am-4:34 am GMT).

Although its primary launch site is in New Zealand, Rocket Lab is headquartered in Long Beach, CA and its launches are regulated by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation. It just built a second launch complex at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA.

Electron is a small rocket, capable of placing a maximum of 300 kilograms into low Earth orbit, but satellites also can be quite small these days. This launch will place 30 satellites for a variety of customers into unique Sun-synchronous orbits at 500 kilometers altitude, dropping them off one at time from Electron’s kick stage.

Electron has a first stage, second stage, and kick stage.  Only the first stage will be recovered.

Credit: Rocket Lab

One of the customers is Gabe Newell, co-founder of the gaming software company Valve. The design studio Weta Workshop created a 3-D printed gnome in the shape of  “Half-Life gaming icon Gnome Chompski.”  It will remain attached to Electron’s kick stage and burn up when that stage reenters Earth’s atmosphere.  Rocket Lab says the point is to pay homage to gamers worldwide as well as to test a 3-D printing technique that could be used for future rocket components.  Newell will donate 1 dollar (the announcement did not specify if that a U.S. dollar or a New Zealand dollar) to the Starship Children’s Hospital’s Paediatric Intensive Care unit for every person who watches the launch on Rocket Lab’s website.

It is not uncommon for Rocket Lab’s launches to be delayed by weather, often fog. Rocket Lab’s Twitter feed (@RocketLab) is the best way to stay up to date.

Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1, Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. Credit: Rocket Lab

Asked how weather requirements for recovery would add to launch weather decisions, Beck said yesterday that it “would have to pretty sloppy weather downrange” for there to be a problem. He added that one advantage of owning the launch site is that there is a lot of flexibility since there are no other users. It is relatively easy for them to decide to wait a day or two.

Approximately 2.5 minutes after liftoff, the first and second stages separate. As the second stage continues into orbit, the first stage will be reoriented using a reaction control system for return to Earth and a drogue chute will deploy once its speed is less than Mach 2. As it gets closer to the surface, the main parachute will deploy.  This time, it will land in the water at a relatively gentle 10 meters per second.

They will do a few of these splashdowns as part of the testing process, but the long term plan is for the stage to be caught by helicopter – a “heli-grab.” When that transition happens depends on what condition the stage is in this time:  “There’s not really too much point in catching a smoldering stump with a helicopter.”  But if it is in “awesome condition,” they’ll move more quickly.

The goal is to reduce the cost of getting to orbit. Beck said that even if they can just reuse each first stage once, it will essentially double their production rate.

Rocket Lab has conducted 15 launches so far, 13 successfully.

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