At the Small Satellite Conference this week, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said he was going to have to “eat his hat” because the company was investigating recovering and reusing its Electron rocket – an action he early swore it wouldn’t do. Instead Beck announced steps Rocket Lab will take to recover the Electron first stage.
“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,” says Mr. Beck. “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.”
Reuse plans for Electron began in late 2018, according to the company’s press release, with initial data from launch operations being analyzed. A future Electron launch will carry a high-fidelity data recorder onboard its first stage to collect still more information, with the recorder designed to survive the breakup of the first stage as it re-enters the atmosphere and be recovered intact.
The second generation of the Electron rocket, scheduled to start flying this fall, incorporates a number of improvements which should improve the chances of an Electron first stage make it past “The Wall,” as Beck describes it, of high-speed re-entry. At some point, Rocket Lab expects to attempt a successful re-entry of the Electron first stage and recover it from the ocean downrange from the company’s New Zealand launch site.
Once a successful splashdown occurs, Rocket Lab will then incorporate a parafoil onto the first stage. The parafoil will deploy, slowing the first stage down enough so a helicopter can attempt to capture it in mid-air and fly it back to the launch site for refurbishment and relaunch. The first attempts for first stage recovery are expected “in the coming year,” says the company.
Unlike the dramatic fly-backs of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage, the much smaller Electron rocket has little margins for extra fuel or active control services. Re-entry and recovery will be passive operations, dependent upon the Electron first stage dropping out of the sky without burning or breaking up and then awaiting a mid-air pickup underneath a parachute.
The rewards for Rocket Lab will be the ability to increase launch frequency by reducing production time spent building new stages from scratch. Since the Electron uses electronically powered fuel pumps, reusing the first stage could simply be a matter of loading in fresh batteries, bolting on a new payload, and putting it back on the pad.
Rocket Lab currently is conducting one launch a month and plans to ramp up launch frequency to twice a month in the near future with a goal to conduct launches one a week. Recovering first stages and being able to reuse them would enable Rocket Lab to conduct launches more rapidly.