Private rocket launch startup and SpaceX competitor Rocket Lab made a big announcement today: It’ll be looking to re-use the first stage of its Electron rockets, returning them to Earth with a controlled landing after they make their initial trip to orbit with the payload on board. The landing sequence will be different from SpaceX’s however: They’ll attempt to catch the returned first stage mid-air using a helicopter.
That’s in part because, as Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck told a crowd when announcing the news today, the company is “not doing a propulsive re-entry” and “we’re not doing a propulsive landing,” and instead will leach off its immense speed upon return to Earth through a turnaround burn in space before releasing a parachute to slow it down enough for a helicopter to catch it.
There are a number of steps required to get to that point, but already, Rocket Lab has been looking to measure all the data it needs to ensure this is possible through its last few launches. It’s upgrading the instrumentation for its eighth flight to gather yet more data, and then on flight 10 it’ll have the rocket splash down into the ocean to recover that rocket for even more learning. Then, during a flight to be determined later (Beck is unwilling to put a number on it at this stage) they’ll try to actually bring one down in good enough shape to reuse it.
As for why, there’s a clear advantage to being able to re-fly rockets, and it’s a simple one to understand when you realize that there’s a huge amount of demand for commercial launches.
“The fundamental reason we’re doing this is launch frequency,” Beck said. “Even if I can get the stage done once, I can effectively double production ratio.”
Beck also added that the biggest difficulty will be braking the rocket’s speed as it returns to Earth — a feat next to which he said the actual mid-air capture of the Electron via helicopter is actually pretty easy, from his POV as an amateur helicopter pilot in training.
Rocket Lab has an HQ in Huntington Beach, Calif. and its own private launch site in New Zealand; it was founded in 2006 by Beck. The company has been test launching its orbital Electron rocket since 2017, and serving customers commercially since 2018. It also intends to launch from Virginia in the U.S. starting in 2019.
The company revealed its Photon satellite platform earlier this year, which would allow small satellite operators to focus on their specific service and use the off-the-shelf Photon design to skip the step of actually designing and building the satellite itself.