Electron’s 16th launch in November 2020, when the company first recovered the rocket from a splashdown.
The next mission for the small launcher Rocket Lab will include his second attempt to recover an Electron missile supercharger after launch by splashing it into the ocean.
The company is working on reusability of its rockets, in the same way that Elon Musk’s SpaceX is currently doing.
“Where we’re trying to get is the point where we can literally catch this thing and then repeat it,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNBC. “Launch, catch, repeat.”
The next mission, the 20th to date, will be launched in May from the company’s private facility in New Zealand. The primary purpose of the mission is to place two satellites in orbit around BlackSky.
Beck’s company wants to restartcabout the boosters so it can be launched more often while also reducing the cost of each mission.
But Rocket Lab’s approach to recovering its boosters is different from SpaceX, which uses the rocket’s engines to slow down on reentry and uses wide legs to land on large blocks.
Instead, Rocket Lab is testing a technology that Beck calls a “thermal aero retarder”: it uses the atmosphere to slow the rocket. After reaching space, the Rocket Lab onboard computer guides the booster through the reentry, where it travels at up to eight times the speed of sound and is exposed to heat in excess of 4,350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Then a parachute is deployed from the top of the booster to slow it down and, like the first recovery in November, down into the Pacific Ocean.
The splashdown is expected to occur about 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 fixes before the company moves into its full reuse plan: plucking the booster from the sky with its parachute using a helicopter.
The Electron missile supercharger for the company’s 20th launch and second attempt at a splashdown recovery.
Rocket Lab is in the process of combining with Vector Acquisition, a specialty acquisition company (SPAC), in a deal that values the aerospace company at $ 4.1 billion. The merger is expected to close in the second quarter, when Rocket Lab will be listed on the Nasdaq and shares of SPAC, currently trading under the ticker VACQ, will be converted to RKLB as the combined company.
A SPAC is a shell company created to raise money through an IPO to merge with an existing private company and make it public.
Learn from the first splashdown
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck on Twitter
Beck said the Electron booster will have a “reinforced heat shield” for this next mission, as the heat shield from the previous recovery mission “took a real blow” during the intense reentry.
Overall, the rocket booster was “in remarkable shape,” and the company “understands the load” on the heat shield better now, he added.
Beck said there will be another major upgrade for the third splashdown recovery mission.
The external changes are minimal, he noted, with most updates related to “thermal load control and management subtleties” on the booster.
Rocket Lab’s goal is to “do as few renovations as possible” with the boosters it repairs so that it can quickly turn them between launches. The company is repurposing parts from the first Electron booster it recovered, which has now been “severely disassembled,” Beck said.
While the booster “dipped into the salt water quickly for a few hours,” he said Rocket Lab has not yet found any lasting problems with parts it plans to re-qualify and launch on other missiles.
Once the company completes all three splashdown tests this year, it will move on to the airborne recovery attempts.
Rocket Lab has shown it can catch a booster with a helicopter in a test last year, which Beck noticed on the first try.
Increase the launch speed
Rocket Lab’s Electron missile has put more than 100 small satellites into orbit in recent years. The company has also built up a spacecraft manufacturing business.
Beck’s company has launch facilities in New Zealand and Virginia. Rocket Lab’s initial 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 said last year that it had booked 26 missions for 2021. With both facilities, the company offers a staggering 132 launch opportunities per year.
Last November, Beck said Rocket Lab was building electron boosters in less than 30 days, and told CNBC the company is now only 26 days away – with the goal of getting production to a rate of one rocket every 18 days.
Planning for the larger Neutron missile
Rocket Lab also unveiled plans for a second, larger missile called Neutron to lift more payloads than its current Electron missile. The launch marketplace is divided into three sections: small, medium and heavy lift. Neutron will target that medium section.
Expected to launch for the first time in 2024, Neutron will be 41 feet long and will be able to carry as much as 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit. Rocket Lab has not disclosed how much Neutron is expected to cost per launch.
The company expects Neutron will cost approximately $ 200 million to develop. The first launch will come from NASA’s Wallops flight facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab plans to build a Neutron-specific plant in the region.
Neutron will also have a reusable booster, but the new missile will “land on an ocean platform” using a propulsion landing. Electron “has always been designed to be really, really manufacturable, rather than really, really reusable,” said Beck.
Shortly after Rocket Lab revealed his plan for Neutron, Musk noted that the rocket “looks familiar” but “is nevertheless the right move.” SpaceX has conducted multiple short test flights of prototypes while perfecting the landing of its Falcon 9 rocket booster, a route Beck isn’t sure Rocket Lab will take.
“Whether or not we see the need for hop testing really needs to be determined, but our kind of current baseline won’t let us do that,” said Beck.