Rocket Lab flies rocket with pre-flown engine for first time

For the first time, Rocket Lab reused one of its Rutherford engines, marking an important step in the road to reusability.
Chris Young
Rocket Lab's Electron rocket at launch.
Rocket Lab's Electron rocket at launch.

Credits: Rocket Lab / Twitter 

Rocket Lab launched an Electron rocket with a pre-flown Rutherford engine for the first time yesterday, August 23.

The company has experimented with a mid-air helicopter retrieval method, though it has settled on plucking boosters out of the ocean after a parachute-assisted splashdown.

The first flight using an engine recovered from one of these boosters is a big step in Rocket Lab's reusability plans.

Rocket Lab reuses a Rutherford engine for first time

An Electron rocket equipped with nine Rutherford engines launched an Earth-observation radar satellite for San Francisco-based Capella Space.

The rocket lifted off from Rocket Lab's New Zealand site at 19:45 EDT (11:45 local New Zealand time) on August 23. One of those nine engines had flown before during a previous Rocket Lab mission in May.

In a statement released before yesterday's mission, Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said "this mission is a big step toward reusable Electron rockets."

"The engines we're bringing back from previous recovery missions are performing exceptionally well through requalification and acceptance testing, so we're excited to send one on its second trip to space as one of the final steps before reflying an entire first stage," he continued.

The mission, called "We Love the Nightlife", is a key step in Rocket Lab's reusability plans, which have been in the works for a few years now.

While SpaceX is known for performing its iconic automated booster landings after Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, Rocket Lab's Electron booster is too small to carry enough fuel for a powered landing. Instead, Rocket Lab performs parachute-assisted ocean splashdowns and then recovers the boosters using boats.

The "We Love the Nightlife" mission also performed a soft splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, making it the eighth time Rocket Lab has retrieved a booster using this method.

For yesterday's mission, the parachute was deployed roughly 8.5 minutes after launch, and the booster splashed down approximately 11 minutes after it took to the skies. Rocket Lab then successfully hauled the booster out of the ocean and back to shore.

In May 2022, Rocket Lab became the first company to ever pluck a rocket out of the sky using a helicopter as it made a slow parachute-assisted descent.

The company had hoped to use this method so as to avoid seawater damage to its rocket parts. However, shortly after that mid-air recovery, the pilot had to drop the booster into the sea anyway, citing "different load characteristics" than were expected from tests.

Rocket Lab has since stated it may no longer pursue the helicopter recovery method due to the complex logistics involved.

Rocket Lab's next rocket to compete with SpaceX's Falcon 9

Yesterday's mission launched one of Capella Space's Acadia synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites into orbit.

The satellite was deployed into a 400-mile-high (640 kilometers) circular orbit roughly 57.5 minutes after launch. That satellite will be used for Earth observations using radar light.

"We Love the Nightlife" was Rocket Lab's 40th launch to date. The company also hopes to launch its next-generation Neutron rocket for the first time next year.

Speaking at a Bank of America event in London in March, Rocket Lab Chief Financial Officer Adam Spice said, "we are positioning Neutron to compete directly with [SpaceX's] Falcon 9."

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