Rocket Lab CEO Touts Helicopter Rocket Capture as Key to Reusable Targets

The Electron booster comes into view of the company helicopter for capture.

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Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck called the company’s first attempt Monday to catch its Electron rocket booster using a helicopter after launch “phenomenal,” telling CNBC the test “achieved 99%.” of the company’s goals to reuse rockets.

“Yesterday was a demonstration that everything works, everything is feasible. You can control and successfully re-enter a [rocket] stage from space, put it under a parachute…and then go and retrieve it with a helicopter in the air,” Beck said.

Rocket Lab wants its rocket boosters to be reusable, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but with a very different approach. After launching its Electron rocket from New Zealand on Monday, the company used a helicopter to snag the parachute that slowed the rocket’s propellant as it returned to Earth.

SpaceX uses its rocket engines to slow down during re-entry and deploys wide legs to land on large platforms.

While Rocket Lab’s helicopter “had a good connection” and began to fly while carrying propellant, Beck said, the helicopter’s pilot saw that the propellant load was different than previous tests and released the propellant, which fell into the ocean. Peaceful. The booster was then retrieved from the water by the Rocket Lab ship. Beck said the rocket is in “excellent” condition and the pilot “made the right decision.”

Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter is capable of lifting 5,000 kilograms, Beck noted, and the Electron booster weighs “just under 1,000 kilograms.” While the test had “a lot of leeway,” Beck said, Rocket Lab used “really conservative estimates” to maximize safety during capture. The helicopter flies with a crew of three: a pilot, a co-pilot, and an observer.

By making its boosters reusable, Rocket Lab could launch more often while lowering the material cost of each mission.

Beck revealed that the Electron booster accounts for 70% to 80% of the total cost of the vehicle. Reusing it would bring significant savings to the company and reduce the number of boosters it needs to produce.

Rocket Lab will then return the Electron booster to its factory for disassembly, inspection, and the restoration process for the next flight.

While Beck cautioned that the company needs to “do a lot of testing” on the booster, Rocket Lab “will strive to fly it again,” in what would be its first repurposed rocket launch.

Beck estimates that about half of Rocket Lab’s missions will use reusable rockets. Night launches, when the helicopter was not flying, or launches that require the full capacity of the rocket reduce that number. (Rocket Lab loses about 10% of the payload capacity on the Electron in its reusable configuration.)

“Repurposing is an iterative process. As we’ve seen with SpaceX, for the first one, the turnaround time was six months or more, and then look at where they are now — they take weeks to turn around,” Beck said.

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