In a significant achievement, public launch provider Rocket Lab, with some caveats, successfully used a helicopter to catch its Electron rocket booster out of the air on the first try.
The company began working on ways to recover and reuse the propellant from its small Electron rocket in 2019, returning to a promise made repeatedly by founder and CEO Peter Beck in previous years. Due to how small the Electron rocket is, it was generally assumed that Beck did not err in avoiding trying to recover or reuse parts of it. However, that attitude quickly changed when the need to increase launch rate became a top priority. Shortly thereafter, Beck revealed that Rocket Lab engineers had looked into the problem more closely and concluded that the recovery of the electron boost was more feasible than previously assumed.
Once the problem was no longer considered insurmountable, the lure of reuse (intrinsically multiplying the efficiency of any production line if done correctly) was irresistible.
While the change in attitude made Rocket Lab the second company after SpaceX to begin seriously developing the ability to recover and reuse orbital-class liquid rocket propellants, the approach it would have to take for a rocket as small as Electron was not It looked nothing like what was used. by Falcon thrusters. Instead of multiple in-flight engine firings, supersonic jet thrust, steerable fins, and a booster landing, Electron would rely on multiple parachutes to slow down, use small thrusters (not unlike Falcon) for attitude control, and be actively captured outside the means, medium. -air by a manned helicopter.
Ironically, demonstrating the vast size difference between Electron and Falcon 9, the Electron booster recovery looks more like Falcon 9 market Recovery. Weighing around a ton (~2200 lb) per half, or about as heavy as a full Electron rocket booster, each fairing half primarily controls its attitude with cold gas propellants while passively re-entering the atmosphere. the earth. The fairing halves then deploy a GPS-guided parachute and gently sink to the ocean surface before being lifted out of the water by a waiting ship.
This is exactly how Rocket Lab tested Electron’s recovery in several previous attempts, fishing intact boosters from the Pacific Ocean after soft landings in the ocean. For a time, SpaceX even attempted to catch fairings in the air, albeit with a highly modified craft and net rather than a helicopter and grappling hook. However, when the company realized that it could easily reuse fairing halves that landed in the ocean, it abandoned capture attempts altogether.
In the case of Electron, it’s no surprise that Rocket Lab was still pursuing catch-based recovery while SpaceX was simultaneously giving up the practice. Simply put, it would be incredibly difficult to reliably and affordably reuse liquid rocket propellant, and especially liquid rocket motors, after submerging them in salt water.
That’s also why the success of Rocket Lab’s first operational capture attempt has its caveats. while the company made successfully capturing the booster in mid-air, the pilot, who has final authority in the interest of safety, observed unusual behavior not seen during testing after engaging Electron and decided to drop the booster early. Fortunately, he made a soft landing in the ocean and was recovered by a ship, but despite beck statements on the contrary, it is almost certain that exposure to seawater will make it impossible to completely reuse them. To say the attempt was a complete success, the helicopter would have had to leave the propellant on the deck of the recovery ship, avoiding a swim altogether.
Above all, even if the catch didn’t last, Rocket Lab successfully launched 34 small satellites and payloads into orbit for various paying customers. Y briefly caught the propellant that launched them with a helicopter. The attempt was arguably much more successful than the failure and probably leaves Rocket Lab with a little more practice and a few minor optimizations far from a perfect recovery. The company can then shift its focus to the next goal: the first reuse of the Electron booster.