Skip to main content

Rocket Lab to attempt its first booster recovery next week

Road To Reusability

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 on Wednesday, November 5, with its Falcon 9 rocket, 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.

Related Videos

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 saltwater, 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.

Editors' Recommendations

Rocket Lab will use a helicopter to catch a falling rocket booster
A helicopter attempting to catch a falling rocket booster.

New Zealand spaceflight company Rocket Lab is planning to catch the first-stage of one of its Electron rockets as it falls back to Earth shortly after launch on Friday.

It’s only the second time it has attempted the feat, which involves a helicopter, a strong cable, and a grappling hook. Oh, and one very skillful pilot.

Read more
NASA targets new date for maiden launch of its mega moon rocket
NASA's SLS rocket on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA is now targeting Monday, November 14, for the maiden launch of its next-generation Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

Technical problems caused the space agency to call off launch attempts in late August and early September, while Hurricane Ian disrupted plans for a potential launch effort late last month, culminating in the team rolling the rocket to shelter to protect it from the strong winds.

Read more
Watch Rocket Lab achieve its 30th launch and 150th satellite delivery
A Rocket Lab Electron rocket blasts off from the launchpad.

Rocket Lab has achieved its 30th Electron rocket launch since its first one in 2017 and deployed its 150th satellite to orbit.

The mission, called The Owl Spread Its Wings, departed Rocket Lab’s launch site in New Zealand on Friday morning local time, Thursday afternoon in the U.S.

Read more