Rocket Lab to attempt recovery and reuse of Electron 1st stage


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Capitalism in space: Faced with stiff competition from both other smallsat rocket companies as well as the big players like SpaceX, Rocket Lab has announced that they are going to try to recover the first stages of their Electron rocket for later reuse.

Their plan is to use the atmosphere and parachutes to slow the stage down as it returns to Earth, and then have a helicopter snag it and land it on a ship.

They had looked into the idea of vertically landing it, like SpaceX does with its Falcon 9, but found it would make their rocket to big and expensive.

This plan is not as radical as it sounds. The Air Force did something similar for almost a decade in the 1960s to recover film from its surveillance satellites.

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4 comments

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “This plan is not as radical as it sounds. The Air Force did something similar for almost a decade in the 1960s to recover film from its surveillance satellites.

    Catching things in midair is not so new. It has even been tried since the 1960s, including Genesis, which brought back a sample from space (the parachute failed, so it was not caught by the helicopter). However, the 1960s film canisters were somewhat smaller and lighter than Electron. I’m not quite sure how Rocket Lab plans to set the delicate rocket onto their boat, but I’m sure they have an idea that they want to try out.

    It could be that setting a rocket down on a rocking, rolling, rising, falling boat may look to the pilot a little bit like this:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJIZTL2ZyEw (2 minutes, helicopter landing in rough seas)

    From the article: “While the midair helicopter recovery may seem like the most crazy and difficult part, it’s not what worries Beck.

    What worries Beck is getting back through the atmosphere. He should be worried, because this is exactly the problem that made engineers believe, for the first half-century of spaceflight, that first stages were not recoverable. Rocket Lab is going to put their Electron rocket through more stresses than SpaceX does. The smaller size and mass of the rocket is what makes recovery possible. As Beck notes, there is a lot of kinetic energy to dissipate, energy that usually uses heat shields in order to protect the craft that is returning from space. Beck calls this “the wall.”

    Blue Origin also has chosen to reuse suborbital rockets, which no one had bothered to do before, and for similar reasons. So there are three companies, each with their own solutions to what had once been impossible.

    For some engineers, the impossible is only a challenge.

  • wayne

    Edward-
    good stuff.

    related:

    “The Last Bucket Catch”
    National Reconnaissance Center 2016
    https://youtu.be/Sdsn4snbzjo
    5:21

    “From 1958 to 1986, the U.S. Air Force’s 6594th Test Group and 6593rd Test Squadron operated from Hickam Air Force Base retrieving film capsules in support of the Corona program and other follow-on early imagery reconnaissance satellite programs…”

  • Andrew_W

    Edward, it’s about time someone invented a stabilized landing deck on an articulated hydraulic mounting.

  • wodun

    I suggested that in response to one of Musk’s tweets back before they had a successful landing and it was pointed out that costs a lot of money and has its own engineering challenges. The next launch they stuck the landing.

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