Late last year Rocket Lab attempted its first recovery of an Electron rocket. Under the power of parachutes, the “Return to Sender” booster splashed down off the coast of New Zealand. While this booster didn’t return in a perfect reusable state, their next booster might fair better.
Rocket Lab announced Thursday that their next mission will host the second recovery attempt of their Electron rocket booster. Their last recovery attempt happened on the “Return to Sender” mission that launched in November of last year. It successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and was recovered by Rocket Lab’s recovery fleet. Although this booster’s heat shield was not designed for reentry, Rocket Lab announced it will look into salvaging the booster for parts instead of a reflight.
Their upcoming mission, “Running Out of Toes” will be Rocket Lab’s 20th launch of an Electron. The SmallSat launcher will carry two more BlackSky satellites into low Earth orbit where it will join BlackSky’s already operational constellation of Earth observation satellites.
This Electron booster will host upgrades that will allow the bottom portion of the booster to better handle the heating of reentry. Rocket Lab has not opted for a propulsive reentry system like their Neutron rocket or SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Their bottom of the booster for this mission is instead equipped with an upgraded heat shield that will better shield the engines from the hot plasma.
“Reusability is hard for any launch vehicle, but it’s a particularly complex challenge for small rockets. The Return to Sender mission proved we could successfully bring Electron back from space. Now it’s about validating re-entry data a second time and starting to introduce the advanced systems that will enable us to launch, catch and repeat. Electron is already the second most frequently launched U.S. rocket. Reusability will enable us to further increase launch cadence giving our customers on-demand access to space.”
“Running Out of Toes” is the second of a planned three splashdown mission for the Electron. The endgame of Rocket Lab’s recovery plan is to catch the first stage using a helicopter. The splashdown tests are to ensure the reentry data is valid and fine-tune recovery efforts before adding human pilots to the equation.
“Running Out of Toes” is slated to launch this May from Launch Complex 1 at their private spaceport in New Zealand.
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