The next mission for small launch leader Rocket Lab will feature its second attempt to recover an Electron rocket booster after liftoff by splashing it down in the ocean.
The company is working toward reusability of its rockets—the same way Elon Musk’s SpaceX currently does.
“Where we’re trying to get, is to the point where we can literally catch this thing and then repeat,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNBC. “Launch, catch, repeat.”
The next mission, its 20th to date, is scheduled to launch in May from the company’s private facility in New Zealand. The primary goal of the mission is to deploy two satellites in orbit for BlackSky.
Beck’s company wants to recover the boosters so it can launch more often, while also reducing the cost of each mission.
But Rocket Lab’s approach to recovering its boosters is different from SpaceX, which uses the rocket’s engines to slow down during reentry and deploys wide legs to land on large pads.
Rocket Lab, instead, is testing a technology Beck calls an “aero thermal decelerator”—using the atmosphere to slow down the rocket. After reaching space, Rocket Lab’s onboard computer guides the booster through reentry—where it travels at up to eight times the speed of sound and is subject to heat in excess of 4,350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Then a parachute deploys from the top of the booster to slow it down and, like its first recovery in November, splash down in the Pacific Ocean.
The splashdown is expected to occur about 400 miles from the launch site, where a Rocket Lab ship will then scoop it out of the water. Beck said this is the second of three planned splashdown recoveries, before the company moves to its full reuse plan: Plucking the booster with its parachute from the sky with a helicopter.
Rocket Lab is in the process of combining with Vector Acquisition, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), in a deal which values the space company at $4.1 billion. The merger is expected to close in the second quarter, when Rocket Lab will list on the Nasdaq and the SPAC’s shares, which currently trade under the ticker VACQ, will convert to RKLB as the combined company.
A SPAC is a shell company that’s set up to raise money via an initial public offering in order to merge with an existing private company and take it public.
Learnings from the first splashdown
Beck said the Electron booster for this next mission will feature a “beefed up heat shield,” as the heat shield on the prior recovery mission “took a real beating” during the intense reentry.
Overall, the rocket booster “was in remarkable shape,” and the company now “understands the load” on the heat shield better, he added.
Beck said there will be one more major upgrade before the third splashdown recovery mission.
The external changes are minimal, he noted, with most of the updates affecting “subtleties around control and managing the thermal load” on the booster.
Rocket Lab’s goal is to “do the minimum amount of refurbishment possible” with the boosters it recovers, so it can turn them around quickly between launches. The company is reusing parts from the first Electron booster it recovered, which is now “severely disassembled,” Beck said.
While the booster took “a quick dunk in the saltwater for a few hours,” he said Rocket Lab has yet to find any lasting problems with parts that it plans to requalify and launch on other rockets.
Once the company completes all three splashdown tests this year, it will move to the mid-air recovery attempts.
Rocket Lab demonstrated that it can catch a booster with a helicopter in a test last year, which Beck noted they did on the first try.
Ramping up the launch rate
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has carried more than 100 small satellites to orbit over the past couple of years. The company has also built a spacecraft manufacturing business.
Beck’s company has launch facilities in New Zealand and Virginia. Rocket Lab’s first launch from the U.S. has been delayed by regulatory reviews and is not expected to be complete until later this year.
The additional launch facility will be key, as Rocket Lab last year said it had 26 missions booked for 2021. Having both facilities gives the company as many as 132 launch opportunities per year.
Last November, Beck said Rocket Lab was building Electron boosters in under 30 days, and told CNBC that the company is now down to 26 days—with its goal to get production to a rate of one rocket every 18 days.
Planning for the larger Neutron rocket
Rocket Lab also unveiled plans for a second, larger rocket called Neutron to lift more payloads than its current Electron rocket. The launch marketplace is divided into three sections: small, medium and heavy lift. Neutron will target that medium section.
Neutron, which is expected to launch in 2024 for the first time, will stand at 131 feet tall and will be capable of carrying as much as 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit. Rocket Lab did not disclose how much Neutron is expected to cost per launch.
The company expects Neutron to cost about $200 million to develop. Its first launch will come from NASA’s Wallops flight facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab plans to build a Neutron-specific factory in the region.
Neutron will also have a reusable booster, but the new rocket will “land on an ocean platform” using a propulsive landing. Electron “was always designed to be really, really manufacturable rather than really, really reusable,” Beck said.
Musk, shortly after Rocket Lab unveiled its plan for Neutron, commented that the rocket “looks familiar” but is “nonetheless, the right move.” SpaceX conducted multiple short flight tests of prototypes as it perfected landing its Falcon 9 rocket booster, a route Beck isn’t sure Rocket Lab will take.
“Whether or not we see the need for hop tests is really to be determined, but our kind of current baseline doesn’t have us doing that,” Beck said.