Catch a falling rocket and return it to shore…
On Tuesday, Rocket Lab, a small company with a small rocket, scored the first half of that success during its recent launch off the east coast of New Zealand.
After sending a cargo of 34 small satellites into orbit, the company used the helicopter to catch the rocket’s 39-foot-long amplifier phase before it flew into the Pacific.
“It’s a wonderful, pretty epic day,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, told a news conference a few hours later. “The difficulty of shooting the scene is quite extreme.”
In the future, Rocket Lab hopes to upgrade the restored amplifier and then use it for another orbital mission, an achievement that only one company has yet achieved: Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The video stream showed a long cable hanging from a helicopter, with a cloudy sky below. Then the amplifier appeared hanging under the parachute.
“Here we get our first glimpse of it,” said Murielle Baker, a commentator during the Rocket Lab broadcast. A nearby hook at the bottom of the helicopter cable stuck the parachute line until the pressed amplifier spun and came out of the camera view.
The fun of Rocket Lab’s mission control proved a successful catch.
However, the company later offered us an upgrade that qualified for success. Mr Beck said the helicopter pilots said the amplifier was not hanging down below the helicopter as it was during the test run and that they had missed it.
“If the pilots were unhappy at any point, that’s what they were instructed to do,” Mr Beck said. “Then the scene continued with a low parachute and flew into the ocean.”
The rocket lab ship removed the amplifier from the water. Finally, the company wants the helicopter to carry the pressed amplifier to land and avoid damaging the salt water.
Mr. Beck did not rule out its re-use. “I still hope you see this car on the pillow again,” he said.
Rocket Lab assigns whimsical names to most of its missions. This one was called “There and Back Again”, indicating the recovery of the amplifier, and also the subtitle of JRR Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. A trilogy of films directed by Peter Jackson has been shot in New Zealand.
Rocket Lab Amplifier Catch is the latest advancement in an industry where rockets used to be expensive one-time dumping. Reusing one or part of it helps to reduce the cost of delivering cargo into space and can speed up the launch rate by reducing the number of missiles to be fired.
“80 percent of the cost of the rocket is actually in the first phase,” Mr Beck said in an early interview. “So the economy is really good for us. Of course, it’s worth doing. ”
SpaceX was a pioneer in the new era of reusable rockets and now regularly conducts the first stages of Falcon 9 rockets and flies them endlessly. The second stages of Falcon 9 (like Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket) are still neglected, usually burning when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX is designing its next-generation super rocket Starship to make full use of. Competitors such as Blue Origin and the United Launch Alliance, and companies in China, are similarly developing missiles that they will use at least in part.
NASA space shuttles were also partially usable, but after each flight they required extensive and expensive work, and they never kept their promise of drone-like operations.
For the Falcon 9, the amplifier fires several times after it is separated from the second stage, slowing it down until it sits softly on the road on an ocean or land-based platform.
Like a much smaller rocket, the electron must use all of its fuel to pick up cargo in orbit. This precluded the possibility of driving access such as the Falcon 9 amplifier.
In return, Rocket Lab engineers invented a more efficient approach to fuel, adding a propulsion system to expel cold gas to orient the booster in the fall, and thermal protection to protect it from temperatures above 4300 degrees Fahrenheit.
The amplifier was separated from the second stage at a height of about 50 miles. He then continued to climb the shore for another 10 miles before accelerating, accelerating to 5,200 miles per hour.
“If you do not have a scene with a perfectly oriented heat shield down, then, basically, at the beginning of the re-entry process, it looks like a big ball of plasma,” Mr Beck said. “It will basically destroy the scene.”
The friction of the atmosphere acted as a brake. About 7 minutes after take-off, 40 seconds later, the amplifier’s fall speed was halved to the sound speed. At that point, a small parachute called a drogue was deployed, adding extra traction. The larger main parachute slowed down the amplifier even more at a slower pace.
Rocket Lab has shown three earlier launches that electron amplifiers can save on re-entry. But on these missions the amplifiers flew into the ocean and then took them out for testing.
This time, the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, which was swimming on this side, met an air booster at an altitude of 6,500 feet, dragging the cable between the gate and the main parachutes.
Consumed almost all the fuel, the amplifier was much lighter than when running. But it was still a piece of heavy metal – a cylinder four feet in diameter and about the height of a four-story building and weighing almost 2,200 pounds or a metric ton.
Mr Beck said he expected the unexpected load issue to be resolved with more drop tests. The Sikorsky can lift up to five metric tons, which is much more than the weight of an amplifier. “This is a small detail,” he said.
Eventually Rocket Lab wants to catch amplifiers in about half of its missions, Mr Beck said. Some missions may not be able to use a reusable booster because the load is too heavy. The extra weight of cranes, parachutes and thermal protection reduces the 5 550 load by 10 to 15 per cent.
Other missions have limitations, such as the instant start window or night run, which makes it impractical to catch the amplifier.
The next few electrons heading to the checkpoint do not contain the apparatus needed to recover the amplifier. This includes the rocket that is to launch CAPSTONE, a NASA-funded but private mission to explore the highly elliptical orbit around the moon that will be used by the next American lunar space station.
But there is another electron with a reusable amplifier on the factory production floor that could be used soon, Mr Beck said.
“Of course, today has given us extreme confidence to continue doing this,” he said.