Announced on April 2, Rocket Lab‘s next launch of its Electron rocket will feature the first stage mid-air recovery of the rocket’s first stage. Here is how Rocket Lab will attempt to catch and reuse its smallsat rockets.
Rocket Lab’s next flight, a rideshare mission for six customers, is being prepared to launch on April 19 from New Zealand. This will be the fourth time Rocket Lab will attempt a recovery of the first stage, but the first time it will put its helicopter-assisted catch to the test during a launch.
About a year ago, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck “ate his hat” when he announced the company would attempt to recover and reuse Electron’s first stage. Instead of copying SpaceX and adding landing legs to land it propulsively, Rocket Lab will pop parachutes and then catch the booster out of mid-air. Here’s how they will do it.
How Rocket Lab will catch its first rocket booster out of the air
One hour before the launch, Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter will take off and head to the designated recovery zone about 150 nautical miles off the New Zealand coast. There, the large customized helicopter will await the launch of the rocket.
During launch, the first stage will propel the second stage and the mission’s payloads for about two and a half minutes before separating and beginning its coast back to Earth. The Electron rocket doesn’t use its engines after launch, unlike the Falcon 9, which slows itself down before reaching the thicker parts of the atmosphere. Instead, Electron has to carefully slice through it, being careful not to rip itself apart with hot plasma.
Once the booster reaches about eight miles, it will deploy a drogue chute to start the process of slowing down. The speed will decrease more dramatically when the main chutes deploy at 3.7 miles.
Moving roughly 22 miles per hour, the booster will eventually enter the recovery zone. There, Rocket Lab’s helicopter will use a hook to latch onto the parachute’s line. Once the Electron booster is secured, it will be returned to land to be assessed for reuse.
Rocket Lab has been practicing this system with dummy stages many times, but on April 19, it will be the first real-life test. The mission, named “There and Back Again,” will be Rocket Lab’s third Electron launch of 2022 and will bring the total number of payloads launched to 146.