Rocket Lab plans stage 1 capture using helicopter

Kiwi launch provider Rocket Lab is planning to reuse part of its Electron Rockets, capturing the falling first stage using parachutes and a helicopter.

Phase one of the plan will see the first stage of an Electron recovered from the ocean downrange of the company’s Mahia Peninsula launch site in New Zealand, then returned to its production complex for refurbishment. The second phase will see a stage 1 use multiple parachutes for a controlled descent. A helicopter launched from a ship downrange of the peninsula will then intercept the falling vehicle and return to the ship carrying the rocket. From there the stage 1 will return to Rocket Lab’s base to be overhauled for relaunch.

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According to Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck, the ambitious plans will not only help Rocket Lab reduce its costs, it will also cut down the time between launches.

“From day one Rocket Lab’s mission has been to provide frequent and reliable access to orbit for small satellites,” he said in a statement. “Having delivered on this with Electron launching satellites to orbit almost every month, we’re now establishing the reusability program to further increase launch frequency.”

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“Reusing the stage of a small launch vehicle is a complex challenge, as there’s little mass margin to dedicate to recovery systems. For a long time we said we wouldn’t pursue reusability for this very reason, but we’ve been able to develop the technology that could make recovery feasible for Electron. We’re excited to put that technology into practice with a stage recovery attempt in the coming year.”

The 17m launch system has enjoyed a 100 per cent success rate for commercial launches since it began operations in 2017. Designed primarily to deliver up to 150kg payloads of small satellite systems into orbit, Electron has been launching exclusively from the company’s native New Zealand, with a second launch site in the US state of Virginia under construction. The second site, combined with reusable first stages, will boost Rocket Lab’s plans to increase launch frequency to every two weeks. At full production, the company expects to launch more than 50 times a year and is regulated to launch up to 120 times a year.