Rocket Lab’s next mission will feature some aerial action we’ve never seen before.
The California-based company is working to make its two-stage Electron rocket partially reusable. The plan calls for snatching falling Electron first stages out of the sky with a helicopter shortly after launch — a dramatic step that Rocket Lab will attempt for the first time on its next mission, which is scheduled to lift off no earlier than April 19.
“We’ve conducted many successful helicopter captures with replica stages, carried out extensive parachute tests and successfully recovered Electron’s first stage from the ocean during our 16th, 20th and 22nd missions,” he added. “Now it’s time to put it all together for the first time and pluck Electron from the skies.”
The upcoming mission, known as “There and Back Again,” will launch from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand site, on the North Island’s Mahia Peninsula. It will be the 26th orbital flight overall for the 59-foot-tall (18 meters) Electron and for Rocket Lab.
The Electron’s main job on “There and Back Again” is delivering 34 satellites to orbit for a variety of customers, but the booster’s return to Earth may generate the most buzz and attention.
About an hour before liftoff, Rocket Lab will move a customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter into capture position roughly 150 nautical miles (280 kilometers) off the New Zealand coast. If all goes according to plan, the Electron’s two stages will separate about 2.5 minutes after launch; the second stage will continue powering the satellites to orbit, while the first stage will come back down to Earth.
The booster will deploy a drogue parachute when it’s about 8 miles (13 km) above the Pacific Ocean, then unfurl its larger main chute at an altitude of 3.7 miles (6 km) or so, Rocket Lab representatives said in the statement.
The chutes will slow the booster’s descent velocity to about 22 mph (36 kph). That will be a manageable speed for the chopper, which will cruise in and try to grab the parachute line with a hook. The Sikorsky will then haul the booster back to land for analysis, including an assessment of its suitability for reuse.
There’s no guarantee that Rocket Lab will ace this operation on its first attempt, of course.
“Trying to catch a rocket as it falls back to Earth is no easy feat. We’re absolutely threading the needle here, but pushing the limits with such complex operations is in our DNA,” Beck said. “We expect to learn a tremendous amount from the mission as we work toward the ultimate goal of making Electron the first reusable orbital smallsat launcher and providing our customers with even more launch availability.”
Rocket Lab’s Electron recovery strategy is quite different from that employed by SpaceX with its Falcon 9 rockets, which routinely make propulsive, vertical landings on terra firma or on ships at sea. The difference comes down to size: The Falcon 9 is much bigger than Electron and can therefore carry enough fuel to execute the mission and have the needed amount left over for landing burns.
Rocket Lab is developing a bigger launcher called Neutron, which is designed to be partially reusable from the outset. Neutron first stages will go the Falcon 9 route, making powered, vertical landings, Beck has said. Neutron is expected to fly for the first time in 2024.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).