Any company serious about building a viable satellite-launch business needs to be able to recover and reuse as many parts of its rocket system as possible.
SpaceX, for example, has achieved great success with its Falcon 9 rocket, today bringing its first-stage back to Earth by landing it upright on the ground or on a ship floating in the ocean. It can also catch the fairing that floats back to Earth on parachutes after deploying satellites in orbit, as well as reuse the capsule — the Dragon and, more recently, the Crew Dragon — that flies supplies and astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station.
Such reusability drastically cuts the cost of rocket launches, giving a company a much greater chance of succeeding in a challenging market.
California-based Rocket Lab has been making great progress with its satellite-launch system in recent years, up to now using the Electron, a rocket smaller than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 though ideal for satellite deployments in low-Earth orbit.
During its next mission, set for November 16, Rocket Lab says it will make its first attempt at recovering the first-stage booster. Whereas SpaceX lands its first-stage booster upright, Rocket Lab is working on a procedure that will see a helicopter pluck the Electron booster out of the sky as it drifts back to Earth with a parachute.
Sadly for space fans eager to watch what sounds like a spectacular mid-air maneuver, next week’s mission will see Rocket Lab plucking the booster not from the sky but the sea. That’s because it’s not quite ready to try the mid-air catch, despite a successful test run earlier this year. The upcoming mission will instead be used to test the parachute system and other elements of the descent, with a view to sending the helicopter skyward in the near future.
“The mission will be the first time Rocket Lab has attempted to recover a stage after launch and is a major milestone in Rocket Lab’s pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to support an increased launch cadence for small satellite missions,” the company said this week.
Matt Darley, Rocket Lab’s recovery systems manager, described the greatest challenge as dealing with the size and mass constraints of the rocket, with a fair bit of extra equipment — think parachutes, gas bottles, extra electronics, and so on — having to be squeezed into the Electron.
While sea recovery could work fine, landing on water risks damage to the booster from impact and salt water, so the company will be keen to move ahead with its plan for air recovery just as soon as it can.
“If we can recover a stage, we can open up many many more launch opportunities and create a much more flexible environment for our customers to pick and choose which flight they want to get on [and] ultimately try and lower the cost,” said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck.
You can find out more about Rocket Lab in this Digital Trends article in which New Zealand-born Beck talks about his company’s work and ambitions.