After launching one of its rockets into orbit on Thursday, a small Rocket Lab satellite successfully returned the car to Earth and landed it carefully in the ocean under a series of parachutes. The maneuver was part of a complex dress rehearsal designed to practice almost every step the Rocket Lab will take to recover and reuse its missiles in the future.
Rocket Lab’s main rocket is the Electron, aimed at launching batches of small satellites into low Earth orbit. For all 15 launches of the company so far, Electron has been consumed, with an entirely new rocket used for each new mission. But in 201
The Rocket Lab’s recovery plan is quite different from that of SpaceX, which lands its Falcon 9 rockets either on a landing pad or on a stand-alone drone after launch. As for the Electron, the Rocket Lab also envisages returning the rocket back to Earth in a controlled manner after flight. But once at a certain altitude, Electron will deploy a parachute and a main parachute to slow its fall. As Electron slowly descends to Earth, Rocket Lab will send a helicopter to catch the parachute line, effectively capturing the vehicle from the air and preventing hardware from hitting the ocean.
During this 16th launch, Rocket Lab practiced these steps, including the deployment of a parachute, following the launch of Electron from the company’s main facility in New Zealand. However, the company skipped the last step of snatching Electron from the air and eventually the rocket exploded in the Pacific Ocean. The goal all along was to see if the company could return the rocket intact and land it in one piece in the ocean. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck posted an initial photo of Electron under a parachute, and the hosts said during the launch that more photos would be shared in the coming days.
Rocket Lab plans to pull the Electron rocket out of the water and return the hardware to the factory to study it in detail. Engineers have equipped this Electron with additional sensors to collect data during launch and descent, as the team wants to see what condition the car is in after its whirlwind space travel and back. Then they will have a better understanding of when they can test the helicopter in the air. It is also possible that this particular rocket will be able to fly again if it is in good enough shape.
While the recovery attracted most of the attention, Rocket Lab also launched 30 satellites into space with this mission. The satellites ranged from surveillance to communication probes and included a vehicle tasked with demonstrating new tethering technology designed to free space from unnecessary and dangerous debris. Also in this mission was printed a 3D statue of a garden gnome, provided by Gabe Newell, the founder of Valve Software. Called Gnome Chompski, the statue is modeled after Half-life series of video games and served as a fun way to simulate a table in flight. For this mission, Newell promised to donate $ 1 to the Starship Intensive Care Unit in New Zealand for anyone who joins the Rocket Lab launch.