Rocket Lab’s next launch will feature a second booster recovery, aiming for reusability like SpaceX

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Electron’s 16th launch in November 2020, when the company picked up the rocket after a splashdown for the first time.

Rocket lab

Little launch leader Rocket Lab’s next mission will feature his second attempt to recover an Electron rocket thruster after takeoff by throwing it into the ocean.

The company is working on reusing its rockets, as Elon Musk’s SpaceX is currently doing.

“Where we’re trying to get to is the point where we can literally grab this stuff and repeat it,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told TBEN. “Throw, catch, repeat.”

The next mission, the 20th to date, is expected to launch in May from the company’s private facilities in New Zealand. The main objective of the mission is to deploy two satellites in orbit for BlackSky.

Beck’s company wants to revson boosters so he can cast more often, while reducing the cost of each mission.

But Rocket Lab’s approach to recovering its boosters is different from SpaceX, which uses the rocket motors to slow down on reentry and deploys wide legs to land on large pads.

Rocket Lab, instead, is testing a technology Beck calls an “aerodynamic thermal decelerator” – using the atmosphere to slow the rocket. After reaching space, Rocket Lab’s on-board computer guides the booster through re-entry – where it travels at up to eight times the speed of sound and is subjected to heat in excess of 4350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then a parachute deploys from the top of the booster to slow it down and, like its first resumption in November, splashes into the Pacific Ocean.

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The splash is expected to occur about 400 miles from the launch site, where a Rocket Lab spacecraft will then pick it up out of the water. Beck said this was the second of three planned recoveries for the splash, before the company moved on to its full reuse plan of ripping the booster with its parachute from the sky with a helicopter.

The Electron rocket thruster for the company’s 20th launch and second splash recovery attempt.

Rocket lab

Rocket Lab is partnering with Vector Acquisition, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), in a deal that values ​​the space company at $ 4.1 billion. The merger is expected to close in the second quarter, when Rocket Lab goes public on Nasdaq and shares of SPAC, which currently trade under the symbol VACQ, will convert to RKLB as a merged company.

A SPAC is a shell company created to raise funds through an initial public offering to merge with an existing private company and make it public.

Lessons from the first splashdown

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, on Twitter

Beck has stated that the Electron booster for this next mission will feature an “enhanced heat shield”, as the heat shield from the previous recovery mission “took a heavy hit” during the intense reentry.

Overall, the rocket thruster “was in remarkable shape,” and the company now “has a better understanding of the load” on the heat shield, he added.

Beck said there will be another major upgrade ahead of the third splashdown salvage mission.

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The external changes are minimal, he noted, with most of the updates affecting “the niceties around controlling and managing heat load” on the booster.

Rocket Lab’s goal is to “do as little refurbishment as possible” with the boosters it collects, so it can quickly reverse them between launches. The company reuses parts from the first Electron amplifier it recovered, which is now “severely disassembled,” Beck said.

While the booster took “a quick dunk in salt water for a few hours,” he said Rocket Lab has yet to find any lasting problems with parts it plans to requalify and toss on. other rockets.

Once the company completes all three throw tests this year, it will move on to in-flight recovery attempts.

Rocket Lab demonstrated he could catch a booster with a helicopter in a test last year, which Beck noted he did on the first try.

Increase the launch rate

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has carried more than 100 small satellites into orbit over the past two years. The company also built a space craft manufacturing business.

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

The additional launch facility will be critical, as Rocket Lab said last year it had 26 missions booked for 2021. The two facilities provide the company with up to 132 launch opportunities per year.

Last November, Beck said Rocket Lab was building Electron boosters in under 30 days, and told TBEN the company is now down to 26 days – with a goal of producing one rocket every 18 days.

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Planning the biggest neutron rocket

Rocket Lab also unveiled plans for a second, larger rocket called Neutron to lift more payloads than its current Electron rocket. The launch market is divided into three sections: small, medium and heavy. The neutron will target this middle section.

Neutron, which is expected to launch in 2024 for the first time, will be 131 feet tall and be able to carry up to 8,000 kilograms in low earth orbit. Rocket Lab has not disclosed how much Neutron is expected to cost per launch.

The company expects Neutron to cost around $ 200 million to grow. Its first launch will come from NASA’s Wallops flight facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab plans to build a specific neutron plant in the area.

Neutron will also have a reusable propellant, but the new rocket will “land on an ocean platform” using a propellant landing. Electron “has always been designed to be really, really manufacturable rather than really, really reusable,” Beck said.

Musk, shortly after Rocket Lab unveiled their plan for Neutron, commented that the rocket “looks familiar” but is “the right move nonetheless.” SpaceX performed several short prototype flight tests as it perfected the landing of its Falcon 9 rocket booster, a route Beck isn’t sure Rocket Lab will take.

“We really need to determine if we see the need for jump testing, but our current benchmark type doesn’t require us to do that,” Beck said.

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