Rocket Lab To Practice Catching A Falling Rocket From The Sky In ‘Huge Milestone’ Next Week

In the world of reusable rockets, SpaceX is king. But now Rocket Lab is hoping to emulate their success – and become the first to reuse a smaller rocket.

The company, which is U.S.-owned but launches from its own site on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, announced today that it hopes to step up its efforts towards reusability on its next launch on Sunday, November 15.

Last year, Rocket Lab announced its plans to make its rockets reusable, by catching them mid-air with a helicopter as they parachuted back to Earth.’

Since then they have performed several tests, but this will be the first attempt at parachuting the rocket into the ocean in preparation for a full recovery attempt.

“This is a huge milestone mission for us,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said in a press call. “This is the first time we’re going to do everything but capture it under a helicopter.”

Dubbed the “Return to Sender” mission, the launch will see the company’s Electron rocket launch from Mahia with 30 different satellites on board into an orbit 500 kilometers above Earth’s surface – the most satellites ever deployed in a single Electron launch.

Two and a half minutes after the launch, the first stage of the rocket – its lower half – will then spin itself 180 degrees around using thrusters, and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, withstanding intense heat and pressure as it passes what Rocket Lab calls “the wall”, reducing its speed to Mach 2.

Then a drogue parachute will slow the descent and stabilise the rocket, before a main parachute slows it further, enabling it to splashdown in the ocean off the coast of New Zealand at about 30 kilometers per hour, where it can then be recovered. An onboard camera should hopefully catch all the action.

“The impact is very gentle,” says Beck. “We won’t expect significant damage from the splashdown into the ocean.”

In April this year, the company successfully practiced catching one of its first stages in a drop test, which occurred without a launch. Next week’s test will be the first parachute attempt following a launch, albeit without a helicopter involved.

Rocket Lab says it will perform several more tests like this on upcoming launches before it attempts a full recovery mission with a mid-air helicopter grab, potentially some time in 2021, to make sure everything runs smoothly.

“If we’ve got a stage in just awesome condition, and everything functioned as expected, then we’ll move really quickly to try and snatch it with a helicopter,” says Beck.

“If we’ve got a smoldering stump, then there’s really not too much point in catching a smoldering stump with the helicopter.”

Ultimately the company hopes to operate “a smallest fleet [of rockets] as possible”, according to Beck, once it can start recovering and reusing its rockets.

Each Electon can currently launch about 300 kilograms of satellites into orbit, with the planned reusability only expected to reduce that by a modest 15 kilograms.

If successful, the Electron – which is about a quarter the size of SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket – will be the only smallsat launcher in the world capable of reuse.

Several other smallsat launchers have plans for reusability, such as Orbex in the U.K. with its upcoming Prime rocket, but Rocket Lab would be the first to achieve the feat.

Now all eyes will be on the upcoming test later this month, to see just how well the Electron copes as it falls back to Earth.

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