Catch a falling rocket and bring it back to shore …
On Tuesday (it will still be Monday evening in New York), Rocket Lab, a small company with a small rocket, aims to pull off an impressive feat during its latest launch from the east coast of New Zealand. After sending a payload of 34 small satellites to the orbit, the company will use a helicopter to catch the 39-foot-long used-up booster stage of the rocket before it is splashed into the Pacific Ocean.
If the booster is in good shape, Rocket Lab may refurbish the vehicle, and then use it for another orbital launch, an achievement so far pulled off by only one company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Here’s what you need to know.
When and how can I watch and launch?
The launch is currently scheduled for 6:41 pm Eastern Time. Rocket Lab will stream the video of the mission live on its YouTube channel, or you can watch it in the player embedded above. The stream is scheduled to start about 20 minutes before the launch.
Why is Rocket Lab trying to catch its booster?
In the space launch industry, rockets used to be expensive single-use throwaways. Reusing them helps lower the cost of delivering payloads to space and can reduce the speed of launch by reducing the number of rockets that need to be manufactured.
“Eighty percent of the cost of the entire rocket is in that first stage, both in terms of materials and labor,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview on Friday.
SpaceX has pioneered a new age in reusable rockets and now regularly lands first stages of its Falcon 9 rockets and flies over and over. The second stages of the Falcon 9 (as well as Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket) are still discarded, typically burning up while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Starship is called SpaceX’s next-generation super-rocket to be completely reusable. Competitors like Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are similarly developing rockets that are at least partially reusable, as are companies in China.
NASA’s space shuttles were also partially reusable, but required extensive and expensive work after each flight, and they never lived up to their promise of airliner-like operations.
How will the catch operation work?
After launching, the booster will separate from the Electron Rocket’s second stage at an altitude of about 50 miles, and during the descent, it will accelerate to 5,200 miles per hour.
A system of thrusters that expel cold gas will orient the booster as it falls, and thermal protection will shield it from exceeding 4,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
The friction of the atmosphere will act as a brake. Around 7 minutes, 40 seconds after liftoff, the speed of the booster’s fall will slow down to twice the speed of sound. At that point, a small parachute called the drogue will deploy, adding extra drag. A larger main parachute then slows down the booster to a more leisurely rate.
A Sikorsky S-92 helicopter hovering in the area at an altitude of 5,000 to 10,000 feet will meet the booster midair, dragging a line with a grappling hook across the line between the drogue and the main parachutes.
After catching the booster, the helicopter is transported to a Rocket Lab ship or all the way back to the land.