Rocket Lab this week provided an update on its plans to recover and refly the first stages of its Electron rocket and will give more details on its larger reusable Neutron vehicle on December 2, 2022.
The launch of November 17, 2021 “Love At First Insight” mission from New Zealand served as a rehearsal for the descent recovery of the Electron first stage. The Electron launch vehicle was a block upgrade with several new systems adjusted for increasing performance, increasing reliability, lowering production costs, and aiding in recovery. It also incorporated “from scratch” autonomous flight termination system hardware necessary for future launches at NASA’s Wallops Island site in Virginia.
For recovery operations, once the Electron first stage has separated from the rest of the rocket and re-enters the atmosphere over the ocean, it will deploy a parachute to slow its descent. A large helicopter will snare the Electron’s parachute and haul the nearly 1,000 kilogram empty stage back to the Rocket Lab launch complex in New Zealand for recertification and another flight.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said the rehearsal included adding a helicopter to a recovery operation for the first time to make sure the helicopter and a first stage under a parachute can safely interact and rendezvous, including systems, communications, software, and modeling of the locations of the helicopter and the descending stage.
“It was a very very smooth flight from our perspective and it was great too see all those new technologies all come together and work really really well,” Beck said.
Beck went on to say that catching the stage with a helicopter should be an easier task, but one that will require a larger helicopter than the Bell 428 used as a surrogate. The Sikorsky S-92 is the front runner for catching a first stage under parachute and flying it back to dry land, with Rocket Lab getting it ready and certified for operations.
Rocket Lab hopes to receive a first stage within the first half of next year for reuse, but Beck said that it will be dependent upon helicopter certification and finding a slot in the company’s 2022 manifest to make a recovery attempt. “That priority is always making sure we deliver customers on time,” he said. Beck anticipates around “50 percent” of Electron flights will be reusable verses expendable, with a continual production line of Electrons cranking out vehicles.
Using a helicopter to recover the first stage will result in substantial savings when compared to the company’s existing sea-based operations to recover stages that have fallen in the ocean. “It’s kind of $4,000 an hour, you only actually fly for a few hours,” said Beck. “The pure cost to go and recover one is very low. The marine operations are fare more significantly costly than the aviation ones.
Starting up launch operations at NASA Wallops is dependent on NASA certifying its autonomous flight termination software for use, hopefully by the end of this year, with Rocket Lab working on its own solution if there are continued delays.
When quizzed on when an update on Rocket Lab’s Neutron reusable medium-sized launcher would be out, Beck suggested it would be relatively soon and didn’t want to spoil the surprise. On November 24, the following day, Rocket Lab tweeted out that it would release a Neutron update on December 2 at 8:00 a.m. EST.