Small satellite launcher Rocket Lab successfully flew its 10th mission this morning from New Zealand, sending seven small spacecraft into orbit above Earth. While the primary goal of the flight was a success, Rocket Lab also used the mission to test out a key maneuver with its rocket — one that could allow the company to reuse its vehicles in the future.
Rocket Lab’s one and only rocket is the Electron, a 55-foot-tall vehicle designed to send relatively small payloads into space. Like most rockets, each Electron only has the bandwidth for one flight. After deploying satellites into orbit, the rocket falls back to Earth and is basically out of commission. But in August, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck announced that the company was going to try things differently. The team is now working toward recovering part of the Electron after each flight in order to fly the vehicles back to space again. That way, the company can save itself from having to build an entirely new rocket for each mission, potentially making it cheaper for its customers to fly.
“The grand goal here is if we can capture the vehicle in wonderful condition, in theory, we should be able to put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up, and go again,” Beck said during the announcement in August.
Rocket Lab won’t be recovering its rockets like SpaceX, which has nearly perfected the ability to land its vehicles after launch. Instead, Rocket Lab’s plan is slightly more complicated. The Electron is meant to perform a guided reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, hopefully coming back in one piece. It’ll then deploy a parachute to slow the rocket’s descent. In an expertly choreographed air display, a helicopter will swoop in, snag the rocket, and carry it to a nearby ship.
Rocket Lab is still a long way off from catching the Electron with helicopters. But today, the company was able to test out one part of the recovery process: the guided reentry. It was a particularly difficult task since the rocket creates heated shockwaves when coming back to Earth, which risks tearing the vehicle apart. To combat these challenges, this particular Electron was outfitted with guidance and navigation systems that helped collect data during the rocket’s fall. It also had a control system that helped to reorient the vehicle as it descended. Ultimately, it came back to Earth in one piece, which is what Rocket Lab was hoping for.
“The stage made it through the harsh re-entry environment intact, which is an outstanding result for a first test of our recovery systems,” Beck said in a statement. “It’s a huge testament to the relentless drive and commitment of our team that we’ve reached ten flights in just our second year of commercial launches.”
Along with perfecting this reusability, Rocket Lab has a lot of ambitious plans for the next year. The company, which has been exclusively launching out of New Zealand, has been working on a second launch site in Virginia at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The plan is to increase the frequency of the company’s missions with two launch sites. So far, Rocket Lab has launched a total of 47 small satellites, and it has plans to fly its next set in the first weeks of 2020.