Rocket Lab will reuse a rocket engine for the very first time this year

The private space firm is using helicopters to pluck rocket boosters out of the sky.
Chris Young
Rocket Lab's Electron booster at launch.
Rocket Lab's Electron booster at launch.

Rocket Lab 

Rocket Lab could reach a key reusability milestone this year.

The U.S. and New Zealand-based company aims to become the second private space firm, after SpaceX, to reuse rocket boosters and engines.

In 2022, Rocket Lab caught a rocket booster on reentry using a helicopter for the first time. While it's yet to use that novel method on a consistent basis, it will soon fly using a reused rocket engine for the first time.

Rocket Lab nears massive reusability milestone

Rocket Lab stated that it aims to fly one of its flagship Electron rocket boosters with a reused Rutherford engine later this year. That, in turn, could lead to an even bigger reusability milestone.

In a press statement yesterday, April 19, the space company wrote that it "will assess the opportunities for flying a complete pre-flown first stage booster following the launch of the pre-flown Rutherford engine in the third quarter this year."

As a point of reference, SpaceX has been reusing its Falcon 9 rocket boosters since 2017. Its most-used Falcon 9 booster has launched and landed more than 13 times. SpaceX performs automated vertical landings, often on droneships out at sea. However, the rockets can come back to land at the launch pad depending on the mission profile.

Rocket Lab goes for a slightly different approach. In May, 2022, Rocket Lab performed a world first by catching a rocket booster out of the sky using a helicopter, though the helicopter pilot had to release the booster shortly after the capture due to load issues. The company has used this method, as well as ocean recoveries — whereby boosters perform soft splashdowns aided by parachutes — to recover the hardware and first stages from six of its Electron missions.

"Reusability for small rockets is immensely challenging as they simply don’t have the fuel margins that larger rockets have to enable propulsive landing," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck explained.

"Despite this significant technical hurdle, our team has poured relentless innovation into our reusability program and proven it’s possible to bring home small rockets and run the engines as good as new. This is a major technical achievement and sets a new standard for small launch vehicles globally."

Rocket Lab looks to compete with SpaceX

Rocket Lab's flagship Electron launch vehicle has been flying since 2018, and it has successfully deployed several high-profile missions, including a lunar CubeSat spacecraft called CAPSTONE for NASA. That mission will test a lunar orbit for NASA's upcoming Gateway lunar orbital station program.

The private space company also aims to launch its reusable next-gen Neutron rocket next year, with a view to competing with SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches. It also hopes to make history by becoming the first private space firm to send a spacecraft to another planet with its self-funded Venus mission.

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