Rocket Lab plans to recover rockets using helicopter

Recovery efforts to begin in 2020

A screengrab from Rocket Lab's video showing what an Electron rocket recovery would look like. (Image: Rocket Lab)
A screengrab from Rocket Lab's video showing what an Electron rocket recovery would look like. (Image: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck ate his hat Tuesday after announcing the company's Electron rocket is going reusable, following in the footsteps of SpaceX, after he initially said reusability wasn't in the cards for the company that launches out of New Zealand.

Beck announced the plans to begin recovering Rocket Lab's first-stage boosters at the SmallSat 2019 conference, hosted this year in Logan, Utah, and dedicated to small spacecraft and satellites.

Rocket Lab began launching in May 2017 from Mahia, New Zealand. The company's headquarters are based in Huntington Beach, California.

News 6 got an exclusive tour of the California rocket factory this summer.

To date, 35 satellites have been successfully delivered to space, according to Rocket Lab’s website.

A second launch site is under construction currently at NASA's Wallops Island Facility. Beck said that is on track to be operational by the end of the year.

"From day one Rocket Lab’s mission has been to provide frequent and reliable access to orbit for small satellites. Having delivered on this with Electron launching satellites to orbit almost every month, we’re now establishing the reusability program to further increase launch frequency,” Beck said in a news release. “Reusing the stage of a small launch vehicle is a complex challenge, as there’s little mass margin to dedicate to recovery systems. For a long time we said we wouldn’t pursue reusability for this very reason, but we’ve been able to develop the technology that could make recovery feasible for Electron. We’re excited to put that technology into practice with a stage recovery attempt in the coming year.”

Rocket Lab began working on moving toward plans to recover and refly the first stage of its Electron rocket late last year. Electron's most recent launch June 29 carried an Advanced Data Recorder, nicknamed Brutus, that provided data to help those recovery efforts.

The next Electron mission, scheduled for Aug. 8, will also carry Brutus to further recovery data, according to the company.

"Electron is basically a flying laboratory, we have around about 15,000 channels of data every flight," Beck said. "So we collect a huge amount of data every flight."

According to a news release, Rocket Lab first plans to attempt to recover an Electron first stage downrange of Launch Complex 1 and have it shipped back to Rocket Lab’s Production Complex for refurbishment.

Next, unlike SpaceX, Rocket Lab will attempt to capture Electron’s first stage but instead of using a propulsion system Rocket Lab will capture the booster mid-air by helicopter.

According to video released with the announcement, Electron recoveries this way will look something like this:

As Electron's first stage returns from launch a helicopter will take off from a boat. The rocket booster will slow from 8.5 times the speed of sound using breaking technology and release a parachute. The helicopter will grab the parachute and then carry the booster back to a ship with a landing platform before it's taken back to the launch complex in New Zealand.

Sounds easy, right?

"We think we are going to have a really good shot at making this happen," Beck said.

The first recovery attempts will happen next year, according to Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab’s current business model takes advantage of the $400 billion market for space access, competing against other small satellite launch companies to provide that access.

Rocket Lab has customers booked through the first half of 2020, Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of global launch services told News 6 in June.

Companies looking to buy an entire Electron rocket can pay under $10 million. Some factors that impact the launch price include what type of orbit the spacecraft needs, the time of the mission and the weight of the satellite.

However, if a customer wants to ride-share with other payloads, it significantly lowers the cost. If Electron first-stage boosters can fly more than once that cost should become even more competitive.

"In theory, we should be able to put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up and go again," Beck said if the company succeeds at recovering its hardware. "That's the main ideal goal."

Beck said the primary reason the company is making this leap is to produce more access to space for its customers.

"I can get the (first) stage back once I have effectively doubled my production ratio," Beck said. "So that's that's a wonderful place to be."

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