Rocket Lab retrieves booster from ocean in key step toward rocket reuse

Rocket Lab wrote it had completed a 'successful day of rocket fishing' after its latest satellite launch mission.
Chris Young
The Electron booster shortly before it was plucked out of the ocean.
The Electron booster shortly before it was plucked out of the ocean.

Rocket Lab / Twitter 

Rocket Lab retrieved one of its boosters from the ocean after launching seven satellites on Monday, July 17.

The milestone is another step toward rocket reuse for the New Zealand and US-based private space company, which would become the second company to ever reuse a rocket after SpaceX.

"Launch, rinse, repeat," Rocket Lab wrote in a recent update on Twitter. "Electron is another step closer to becoming the first reusable small rocket."

Rocket Lab aims to reuse an Electron rocket

The retrieval was performed after Rocket Lab's mission called "Baby Come Back", on July 17. During the mission, Rocket Lab successfully launched seven satellites to orbit from its New Zealand launch facility, including four NASA Starling CubeSats.

Unlike SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster, which come back down to Earth to perform their iconic vertical landings, the 59-foot-tall (18 meters) Electron booster is too small to have enough fuel left over for a landing. Instead, they will slowly descend into the ocean, where they will be recovered by sea vessels.

Once it deployed its satellites for the "Baby Come Back" mission, Rocket Lab's Electron first stage booster came back to Earth and deployed a parachute for a soft splashdown in the Pacific Ocean some 17 minutes after liftoff.

A Rocket Lab recovery ship then retrieved the booster from the ocean in a big step for the company's reusability efforts. In April, Rocket Lab stated it will reuse one of its Rutherford engines for the very first time this year.

The company also aims to reuse its rocket boosters, and it has been experimenting with a helicopter retrieval method that sees it pluck rocket boosters out of the sky as they slowly descend using a parachute.

The helicopter retrieval method would help to mitigate any corrosion effects from seawater, though it is also logistically challenging – the company's first mid-air catch attempt in May last year ended in the helicopter pilot releasing the booster into the ocean due to "different load characteristics than [those] experienced in testing."

Rocket Lab's 'successful day of rocket fishing'

Rocket Lab, therefore, is also experimenting with simply fishing its boosters out of the sea with a ship after splashdown, as was the case during the "Baby Come Back" mission.

"A successful day of rocket fishing for the recovery team. One Electron booster safely on board after a quick trip to space," Rocket Lab explained on Twitter Monday.

The company has also shared a series of photographs on Twitter of the booster for that mission, as it made its descent as well as shortly after the splashdown. Over the next few weeks, Rocket Lab engineers will analyze the booster and test whether it will be able to fly once again.

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