Rocket Lab will recover rocket booster from ocean after next mission

The space firm, which has previously plucked a rocket booster out of the sky, will also launch NASA's 'swarm' satellite, Starling.
Chris Young
Electron flying during a previous mission.
Electron flying during a previous mission.

Rocket Lab 

Rocket Lab's upcoming Electron mission, called "Baby Come Back", will see the US and New Zealand-based company perform another marine recovery attempt of its rocket booster.

Rocket Lab announced in a press statement it will lift a number of satellites to low Earth orbit before attempting to retrieve its rocket booster from the ocean. The company is developing two reusability methods, one that plucks boosters out of the sky using a helicopter and the marine recovery method.

Rocket Lab's rocket retrieval methods

Rocket Lab's "Baby Come Back" mission will lift off from the private space company's Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula, with the launch window opening on July 14.

The firm's Electron rocket will lift several customer payloads to space, including a 4 CubeSat mission for NASA, a demonstration satellite for Space Flight Laboratory, and two radio frequency satellites for Spire Global.

Rocket Lab will recover rocket booster from ocean after next mission
An artist's impression of SpireGlobal's satellites.

The NASA satellite, called Starling, is designed to test "swarm" satellite technologies, which could see fleets of small spacecraft autonomously coordinating their activities. The SpireGlobal satellites, meanwhile, are designed to monitor orbital space debris.

After the Electron's booster sends its second stage toward orbit it will come back down to Earth. Unlike SpaceX's Falcon 9, which comes down for a vertical landing, Electron deploys a parachute to perform a controlled splashdown in the ocean. It is then fished out of the ocean using a specialized vessel.

For Rocket Lab's helicopter recovery method, the one main difference is that it uses a helicopter to pluck the booster out of the sky as it slowly descends to the ocean. The company has successfully caught a booster using a helicopter once before, though the helicopter pilot had to drop the booster into the ocean shortly afterward as a precautionary method. A second attempt was called off at the last moment after the pilot momentarily lost telemetry data from the booster.

Reusing Rutherford

For both recovery methods, Rocket Lab transports the booster back to the company's production complex to determine whether it can be refurbished for use in another mission.

Rocket Lab has performed several successful marine recoveries in the past. The company also reused one of its Rutherford engines for the first time in September last year, using it to power an Electron once again after it has already flown to space.

Rocket Lab recently also flew its suborbital version of Electron, HASTE, for the first time. The suborbital rocket is operated by the firm's national security subsidiary and was designed to test hypersonic technologies. The next massive milestone on the agenda for Rocket Lab is the debut launch of its next-generation Neutron rocket, which will be comparable in size and performance to SpaceX's Falcon 9.

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