Rocket Lab has just taken a major step in its history by successfully recovering the first stage of its Electron rocket. The booster will be repatriated to a factory for analysis.
Rocket Lab in the footsteps of SpaceX
Since 2015, SpaceX has revolutionized the aerospace market by lowering the cost of launching into orbit through the reuse of rocket boosters. Naturally, other public and private agencies have since tried to develop similar structures. Rocket Lab, a young private company specializing in shipping small payloads, is one of them. There are indeed now so many requests for these types of launches that the company has been thinking for a few years about different methods to recover the first stages of its rockets, in order to be able to keep pace.
Note that the Electron rocket is too small (18 meters) to perform motorized hits like SpaceX (not enough fuel available). So the engineers at Rocket Lab finally developed the following plan: the first stage separates from the second at about 80 km altitude. Thrusters then make it possible to reorientate its “engine part” upside down. Rocket Lab then plans to deploy a first small parachute, then a second (main), in order to slow down the structure.
Eventually, it is then planned to “catch” these boosters directly in flight by a helicopter before they plunge into the ocean. The goal: to minimize the potential damage inflicted by seawater on structures. For now, the helicopter part is not yet ready. Still, Rocket Lab has just taken another major step forward.
As part of its latest mission, an Electron took off from the company’s launch site in New Zealand overnight Thursday through Friday, carrying thirty satellites into Earth orbit. The first stage then descended to Earth before plunging into the middle of the Pacific, about 650 kilometers from the New Zealand coast. It was then collected by a dedicated ship, before being repatriated for analysis.
“Once in the factory, it will be like a CSI [crime scene investigation],” said Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab. “We are going to take everything apart and explore the performance of each component.”
For their part, all the satellites were successfully deployed 500 km above the Earth about an hour after takeoff. Among them are two “cubsats” from the French company Unseenlabs, which specializes in intercepting radio frequency signals from space. They are the second and third members of the future constellation of twenty satellites proposed by the company. Once in place, these instruments will allow better monitoring of activities at sea, such as illegal fishing and anti-environmental behavior.
As you can see below, a six-inch tall titanium garden gnome, nicknamed Gnome Chompski, was also attached to the Kick Stage of the Electron rocket, a circular platform that drops satellites into orbit and then falls back to Earth. A nod to the Half-Life video game series, for those in the know.