Small satellite launcher Rocket Lab is following in the footsteps of rocket behemoth SpaceX with plans to make its rockets reusable. But Rocket Lab won’t be landing its vehicles in the same fashion as SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Instead, the company plans to catch its rockets in mid-air with a helicopter after they’ve fallen back to Earth.
Rocket Lab announced these plans today at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah. The company says the goal is to increase the frequency of launches of its primary rocket, called the Electron. By saving the vehicles when they return to Earth, Rocket Lab hopes to turn them around and re-launch them again as soon as possible. And that shouldn’t be too difficult since some of the vehicle’s machinery runs on electric batteries.
“we should be able to put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up, and go again.”
“The grand goal here is if we can capture the vehicle in wonderful condition, in theory, we should be able to put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up, and go again,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said during today’s announcement.
To recover its rockets, Rocket Lab envisions a complicated system involving ships, helicopters, and parachutes. After launch, the Electron rocket will ascend and break apart in space, with the upper portion of the rocket continuing deeper into orbit and the lower portion falling back to the planet. That bottom portion of the rocket will reenter Earth’s atmosphere — hopefully intact — and then deploy a parachute to slow its fall. In the meantime, a helicopter will take off from a ship and attempt to snag the rocket’s parachute in the sky. The helicopter will then deposit the rocket back at the ship.
The method shares a few similarities to how SpaceX lands its rockets, but the key difference is that the Electron won’t be landing itself on a solid platform with its own engine — what’s known as a propulsive landing. Beck says that’s because the smaller sized Electron couldn’t really accommodate this kind of recovery. “The fundamental reason for that is that takes a small launch vehicle and turns it into a medium-sized launch vehicle,” says Beck. “And we’re not in the business of building medium-sized launch vehicles. We’re in the business of building small launch vehicles.”
Rocket Lab’s entire business model is centered around the small satellite revolution. Originally, satellites cost millions of dollars to make and were built the size of school buses. But over the past decade, manufacturers have developed ways to make satellites smaller and smaller, thanks to standardization and miniaturization of consumer electronics.
“I find myself in the position of eating my hat.”
Now, satellite operators are able to make vehicles the size of washing machines or cereal boxes. And those are the kinds of vehicles that Rocket Lab is focused on. The company’s 55-foot-tall rocket is only capable of lofting a maximum of 500 pounds (225 kilograms) into low Earth orbit. That’s a very small load compared to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which can put up more than 50,000 pounds into low Earth orbit.
Originally, Beck thought it was impossible for the Electron to be recovered after launch, especially since the rocket generates a lot of heated shock waves when it comes back to Earth. But after having launched the rocket seven times now, the company gathered enough data from each flight that convinced the team something like this could be done. “I’ve said publicly a few times the various things that Rocket Lab would never do,” Beck says. “So unfortunately, I find myself in the position of eating my hat.”
This method of recovering rockets with helicopters isn’t a completely new idea. The United Launch Alliance proposed a similar process for recovering the engines on its future Vulcan rocket the company has been developing — though there hasn’t been much of an update on those plans.
Over the next few missions, Rocket Lab will add some major updates to the Electron leading up to the first attempted helicopter catch to help make the vehicle recoverable. The first major goal is to get the Electron through the atmosphere in one piece before attempting a helicopter recovery. Beck also says any future Rocket Lab customers should not be concerned about their payloads as changes are made to the rocket. “If you’re flying on us, don’t anybody panic, because all of these upgrades are completely standalone to Electron,” he says. “They don’t interface with any of the current flight systems. They’re all passive.”
“Launch frequency is the thing that is going to change this industry.”
While Rocket Lab hopes to eventually reduce prices of its Electron with reusability, the primary goal is to increase the company’s launch cadence. The company’s stated goal is to get to a point where it is launching up to 120 rockets a year — an unprecedented amount for a single company. So far Rocket Lab, which first went to space in 2017, has launched three missions this year. But the company is developing a second launch site in Virginia, apart from its primary site in New Zealand, in order to accommodate more launches annually.
“Launch frequency is the thing that is going to change this industry and quite frankly, going to change the world,” says Beck. “Because if we can get these systems up on orbit quickly and reliably and frequently, we can innovate a lot more and create a lot more opportunities.”