Rocket Lab’s next mission has been named “Return to Sender” as the company confirmed plans to arrest the descent of its Electron booster via parachutes.
The company has already demonstrated that the first stage can survive what founder and CEO Peter Beck referred to as “the wall” – the maximum heat and pressure experienced by the spent Electron as it returns to orbit.
Equipping the booster with parachutes is the next step before an attempt is made to snatch the descending rocket in mid-air by helicopter. The “catch” will take place in a future mission if all goes well.
The mission, which will also carry Gnome Chompski to space, has a launch window between 01:44 and 04:34 UTC on 16 November. The fun and games will kick off at separation of the second stage at around the 150-second mark. Following engine shutdown, the first stage will be swung around 180 degrees by Rocket Lab’s reaction control system and orientated for re-entry.
Should the stage survive “the wall” (and Rocket Lab has demonstrated that it can) a drogue parachute will pop out once the booster has been slowed to less than Mach 2.
A large, main parachute will then deploy a few thousand metres above the ocean and further slow the booster to a controlled splashdown, where it can be collected by a recovery vessel. There are no plans to attempt to reuse the stage.
“The goal here,” Beck told The Register during an interview regarding the company’s return to flight earlier this year, “is to get one back to the factory… and that will really help inform us, really, how much work we’ve got ahead of us (or not) and what kind of condition the stage is in.”
The team has rehearsed the next step – catching by helicopter – using a mock stage. Such a recovery would make the Electron the first and only reusable orbital-class small launch system. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is a far heftier beast and Musk’s team has opted for a propulsive landing route to reusability.
While Return To Sender is another step in the company’s methodical approach to developing the capability to reuse Electron first stages (and thus boost launch cadence), capturing objects returning from space using a helicopter is a well-proven concept. The classified US Corona (no, not that one) programme of the 1960s saw descending film canisters captured this way [PDF] and mutterings were made about catching a descending Saturn V first stage by a monstrous helicopter variant.
While Rocket Lab will not need quite such a beast to snag an Electron (should the parachute test be successful), bringing a first stage safely back to Earth will pop Beck’s rocketeers into a highly elite club. ®