Rocket Lab said Thursday it will try to restore the first phase of the Electron missile for the first time with the next mission, scheduled to take off in mid-November.
This step follows a series of tests in which Rocket Lab is building to restore the full phase. In previous tests, engineers deployed the skydive from the first stage at maximum payload and collected data as two earlier rockets flew over the “wall”;, which the company calls heat. High degree and pressure when re-flying at supersonic speed.
The company’s founder, Peter Beck, said during a meeting with reporters he wasn’t sure what the company would catch in the ocean. It could be an almost intact early stage or, he admits, “a dull stump”. The key to this experiment, he said, was to collect data about the skydiving system.
Beck announced the company’s plans to start using the small Electron rocket more than a year ago, saying the goal was to effectively double output for customer needs. “We are seeing smaller and smaller production lead times and a step out of the factory every 30 days,” he said. “But really, we can’t keep up with the needs of our customers.”
His engineers developed a plan whereby the first stage would start up and separate from the second, as usual, at an altitude of 80 km and then use the system’s propulsion. Reaction controls to reorient the vehicle to run again, with the engine section navigating. Unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the nine early-stage engines on the Electron won’t work. (SpaceX is the only company to successfully reinstate the early stages.)
As the Electron rocket goes lower into the atmosphere, a parachute will deploy, followed by a main parachute. If all goes well, the missile will plunge into the sea at speeds below 10 meters per second.
That’s the plan, at least. With an upcoming mission called “Return to Sender”, the company will then recall the car from the ocean and return it to its factory in New Zealand to see the status of the first phase.
“Parachuting is not a trivial thing,” Beck said. “Whenever you throw out a piece of fabric just below the speed of sound, it’s always got a little fun. I’ll stop worrying when we bring it back to the factory.”
The company will likely have to tweak Electron’s hardware and software, Beck said, and this will improve future recovery efforts. Once the company can bring the entire first phase back up, the final step will be to catch the vehicle flying in mid-air, using a helicopter – this will avoid water damaging the vehicle from the sea. The company successfully practiced this manipulation by capturing a stage of a mock missile with a helicopter.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of heat shielding work and various pieces we need to get right,” he said. “Once we’ve reached the point where we have something in a condition where we really care that it’s not getting wet, we’ll start bringing in the helicopter.”
The process may take a few flights, but the company has a lot of commercial missions to test the technology out of. Beck said the cost of Electron’s load capacity to incorporate a parachute, heat shielding system, reaction control system and other measures is only about 15 kg.
The “Return to Sender” mission will put 30 small satellites into different orbits, and a two-week launch window will open on November 15. Attempts to restore range will take place about 400km from the launch pad. , in the Pacific.