Rocket Lab can start booster recovery to make SpaceX reusable

The 16th electron launch in November 2020 when the company recovered the rocket for the first time after the initial hosed down.

Missile laboratory

The next mission for the little starter guide, Rocket Lab, will involve the second attempt to rescue an electron rocket booster after it has lifted off by splashing it into the ocean.

The company is working on the reusability of its rockets – just like Elon Musk’s SpaceX is currently.

“We’re literally trying to catch this thing and then repeat it,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNBC. “Start, catch, repeat.”

The next mission, the 20th so far, is scheduled to start in May from the company’s private facility in New Zealand. The main objective of the mission is to deploy two satellites in orbit for BlackSky.

Beck’s company wants to restore the boosters so they can start more frequently while reducing the cost of each mission.

Rocket Lab’s approach to restoring its boosters differs from SpaceX, however, in which the rocket’s engines slow down on re-entry and use wide legs to land on large pads.

Instead, Rocket Lab is testing a technology Beck calls “Aero Thermal Decelerator” – and using the atmosphere to slow the rocket. After reaching space, Rocket Lab’s on-board computer guides the booster through re-entry – where it moves at up to eight times the speed of sound and is exposed to heat of more than 4,350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then a parachute is deployed from the top of the booster to slow it down and splash around like it did on its first recovery in November in the Pacific.

The hosing down is expected to take place approximately 400 miles from the launch site, where a Rocket Lab ship will then shovel it out of the water. Beck said this is the second of three planned splashdown restores before the company moves on to its full reuse plan: parachuting the booster from the sky in a helicopter.

The Electron Rocket Booster for the company’s 20th launch and second splashdown recovery attempt.

Missile laboratory

Rocket Lab is in the process of teaming up with Vector Acquisition, a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC), on a deal valued at $ 4.1 billion in the space company. The merger is expected to complete in the second quarter when Rocket Lab is listed on Nasdaq and SPAC shares, currently trading under the ticker VACQ, are converted to RKLB as a combined company.

A SPAC is a shell company that was formed to raise funds through an IPO in order to partner with an existing private company and take it public.

Findings from the first splashdown

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, on Twitter

Beck said the electron booster for this next mission will have a “reinforced heat shield” because the heat shield from the previous recovery mission “took a real blow” during intense re-entry.

Overall, the rocket booster is “in remarkable condition” and the company “now has a better understanding of the stress” on the heat shield, he added.

Beck said there will be one more major upgrade ahead of the third Splashdown recovery mission.

The external changes are minimal, with most of the updates affecting the “subtleties of controlling and managing thermal stress” of the booster.

The goal of Rocket Lab is to use the restored boosters to “do the minimum amount of renovation” possible so that they can be quickly restored between launches. The company is reusing parts of the first recovered electron amplifier, which is now “severely dismantled,” Beck said.

While the booster was “quickly immersed in saltwater for a few hours,” it said Rocket Lab has not yet found any permanent problems with parts to be re-qualified and fired at other missiles.

Once the company completes all three of this year’s splashdown tests, it will move on to mid-air recovery attempts.

Rocket Lab showed in a test last year that it could catch a booster with a helicopter, which Beck found on the first try.

Increase the start rate

Rocket Lab’s electron rocket has put more than 100 small satellites into orbit in recent years. The company has also built a spacecraft manufacturing business.

Beck’s company has launch facilities in New Zealand and Virginia. Rocket Lab’s first launch from the US has been delayed by regulatory reviews and is not expected to be completed until later this year.

The additional launch facility will be crucial as Rocket Lab booked 26 missions for 2021 last year. With both facilities, the company offers up to 132 start-up opportunities per year.

Last November, Beck said Rocket Lab was building electron amplifiers in less than 30 days, telling CNBC that the company now has 26 days left – with the goal of getting production on a rocket every 18 days.

Planning for the larger neutron rocket

Rocket Lab also revealed plans for a second, larger rocket called the Neutron to lift more payloads than the current Electron rocket. The launch site is divided into three areas: small, medium and heavy lifts. Neutron will target this middle section.

Neutron, which is expected to launch for the first time in 2024, will have a height of 30 meters and be able to carry up to 8,000 kilograms into low-earth orbit. Rocket Lab has not disclosed how much Neutron is expected to cost per launch.

The company estimates that Neutron will cost about $ 200 million to develop. The first take-off will be from NASA’s Wallops facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab plans to build a neutron-specific factory in the region.

Neutron will also have a reusable booster, but the new rocket will “land on an ocean platform” by performing a propulsion landing. Electron “has always been designed to be really, really manufacturable and not really, really reusable,” Beck said.

Shortly after Rocket Lab revealed its plan for Neutron, Musk noted that the rocket “looks familiar” but was “the right move anyway.” SpaceX conducted several short flight tests on prototypes as it perfected the landing of its Falcon 9 rocket booster. Beck isn’t sure if Rocket Lab will take this route.

“Whether or not we see the need for hop testing really needs to be determined, but our current baseline doesn’t let us do that,” Beck said.

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