An electron rocket is getting ready for launch.
Rocket Lab, the leading company that builds and launches small rockets, on Thursday took what CEO Peter Beck described as a “giant milestone” in his work reusing rockets.
The company recovered the booster of its electron rocket after it sprayed into the Pacific Ocean. The recovery came after Rocket Labs 1
“Welcome back to Earth Electron!” Rocket Labs CEO Peter Beck said in a tweet with a picture showing booster floating in the ocean next to one of the company’s ships.
Beck’s company, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, will repeat itcover boosters so it can launch more often – while reducing the cost of materials for each mission. But Rocket Labs approach to restoring its boosters is remarkably different from SpaceX, which uses booster engines to slow it down during re-entry and add wide legs to land on large concrete pads.
Rocket Lab is testing instead a technology that Beck calls an “aero thermal decelerator” – essentially using the atmosphere to slow down the rocket. After reaching space, Rocket Labs built-in computer booster controls through re-entry. Then a parachute triggers from the top of the booster to slow it down and eventually allow the company to pick it up from the sky with a helicopter.
“This is the first time we’ll actually do anything but catch it under a helicopter,” Beck told reporters before the launch.
The recovery occurred at sea about 400 kilometers off the coast of New Zealand. Rocket Lab, which also has operations and facilities in the United States, launches from a private complex on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Rocket Lab will now transport the booster back to the company’s production facility, where its engineers will inspect the rocket and collect data to advance the recovery program.
Beck acknowledged before the launch that even with a few previously performed tests, “it’s too early” for Rocket Lab to “understand what state we will get it back in.”
“The strongest driver [of the recovery program] do not have to rebuild rockets, so being able to increase production speed is really the key driver, “Beck said. The ultimate goal here is to get it back in such a condition that we can put it back on the pillow, gas it back up, charge the batteries and boot. And if we can reach this milestone, the economy will certainly change quite significantly. “
The benefits and economics of rocket recycling remain a controversial issue in the space industry. SpaceX’s Musk recently blew up rival United Launch Alliance as “a complete waste of taxpayers’ money” because its rockets cannot be reused. SpaceX has steadily pushed the boundaries of rocket recycling, especially by landing boosters – which make up the largest and most expensive part.
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