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Rocket Lab makes its first booster recovery after successful launch

New Zealand-born launch provider Rocket Lab took a step towards making its launch vehicles reusable today with the safe splashdown and recovery of an Electron booster after it successfully took its payload to orbit. The image above is the view from the booster up into the parachute that brought it safely down.

Reusing the first stage of launch vehicles — that is to say, the booster that takes the payload from the ground to the edge of space, where a second stage takes over — has the potential to vastly reduce the cost of getting to orbit. For decades these precision-engineered machines, which cost millions to produce, have been abandoned after use and allowed to break up on reentry.

SpaceX first demonstrated recovery of its Falcon 9 rockets in 2015, landing one on a drone ship after several failed attempts with other launches. A used first stage was first re-launched in 2017.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck announced last year that the company would be attempting its own method of recovering a used booster. Instead of the complex propulsive controlled landing of the Falcon 9, the booster would descend safely under a parachute, and be intercepted and captured by a helicopter before splashdown.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Today’s mission, however, skipped the helicopter step as perhaps being a bit ambitious for a first try. After delivering some 30 satellites and a 3D-printed gnome to the edge of the atmosphere, the Electron’s booster returned to Earth and was tracked to where it splashed down about two hours later.

According to a press release from Rocket Lab sent after the launch, the descent and recovery went exactly as planned:

Approximately two and a half minutes after lift-off, at an altitude of around 80 km, Electron’s first and second stages separated per standard mission procedure. Once the engines shut down on Electron’s first stage, a reaction control system re-oriented the stage 180-degrees to place it on an ideal angle for re-entry, enabling it to survive the incredible heat and pressure known as “The Wall” during its descent back to Earth. A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descended, before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometres of descent. The stage splashed down as planned. Rocket Lab’s recovery team will transport the stage back to Rocket Lab’s production complex, where engineers will inspect the stage to gather data that will inform future recovery missions.

“What the team achieved today in recovering Electron’s first stage is no mean feat. It took a monumental effort from many teams across Rocket Lab, and it’s exciting to see that work pay off in a major step towards making Electron a reusable rocket,” said Beck.

We’ll update this post with further developments. You can watch a replay of the launch below.

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Rocket Lab successfully launches 10 Earth observation satellites in 15th commercial mission

New Zealand launch provider Rocket Lab has put its 15th commercial payload into space, delivering 10 Earth observation satellites each to their own orbit. The company is getting back into its stride after an upset in July dampened plans to set a record for launch turnaround time.

Aboard the latest Electron launch vehicle to leave the Earth were nine of Planet’s “SuperDove” satellites, the newer generation of observation craft that allow that company to provide frequently updated imagery of an increasingly large proportion of the surface.

Canon’s CE-SAT-IIB is a demonstration craft, showing off “a middle-size telescope equipped with an ultra-high sensitivity camera to take night images of the Earth,” along with some smaller ones for more ordinary observation. The rideshare with Planet was organized by launch rideshare specialists Spaceflight.

The launch was originally scheduled for last week but stood down at the time because “some sensors are returning data that we want to look into further.” Fortunately there was no shortage of backup launch dates, and today was set for the new attempt.

Everything proceeded nominally and the satellites were on their way and able to be reached about an hour after takeoff.

This is the second launch since Rocket Lab was briefly grounded following the loss of a payload in July — not to any flashy explosion but to a rather graceful shutdown due to an electrical fault before it could reach the desired orbit.

Fortunately the company’s quick investigation meant they were ready to fly less than a month later.

Incidentally, all that and more will be on the table for discussion at TC Sessions: Space 2020 in December, where Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck will be joining us.

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