Rocket Lab Sets Their Sights On Rapid Reusability By Snagging Rockets In Mid-Air With A Helicopter

Not so very long ago, orbital rockets simply didn’t get reused. After their propellants were expended on the journey to orbit, they petered out and fell back down into the ocean where they were obliterated on impact. Rockets were disposable because, as far as anyone could tell, building another one was cheaper and easier than trying to reuse them. The Space Shuttle had proved that reuse of a spacecraft and its booster was possible, but the promised benefits of reduced cost and higher launch cadence never materialized. If anything, the Space Shuttle was often considered proof that reusability made more sense on paper than it did in the real-world.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with Electron rocket

But that was before SpaceX started routinely landing and reflying the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster. Nobody outside the company really knows how much money is being saved by reuse, but there’s no denying the turn-around time from landing to reflight is getting progressively shorter. Moreover, by performing up to three flights on the same booster, SpaceX is demonstrating a launch cadence that is simply unmatched in the industry.

So it should come as no surprise to find that other launch providers are feeling the pressure to develop their own reusability programs. The latest to announce their intent to recover and eventually refly their vehicle is Rocket Lab, despite CEO Peter Beck’s admission that he was originally against the idea. He’s certainly changed his tune. With data collected over the last several flights the company now believes they have a reusability plan that’s compatible with the unique limitations of their diminutive Electron launch vehicle.

According to Beck, the goal isn’t necessarily to save money. During his presentation at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah, he explained that what they’re really going after is an increase in flight frequency. Right now they can build and fly an Electron every month, and while they eventually hope to produce a rocket a week, even a single reuse per core would have a huge impact on their annual launch capability:

If we can get these systems up on orbit quickly and reliably and frequently, we can innovate a lot more and create a lot more opportunities. So launch frequency is really the main driver for why Electron is going reusable. In time, hopefully we can obviously reduce prices as well. But the fundamental reason we’re doing this is launch frequency. Even if I can get the stage back once, I’ve effectively doubled my production ratio.

But, there’s a catch. Electron is too small to support the addition of landing legs and doesn’t have the excess propellants to use its engines during descent. Put simply, the tiny rocket is incapable of landing itself. So Rocket Lab believes the only way to recover the Electron is by snatching it out of the air before it gets to the ground.

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Smaller And Smarter: The Electron Rocket Takes Flight

On January 21st, 2018 at 1:43 GMT, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifted off from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Roughly eight minutes later ground control received confirmation that the vehicle entered into a good orbit, followed shortly by the successful deployment of the payload. On only their second attempt, Rocket Lab had become the latest private company to put a payload into orbit. An impressive accomplishment, but even more so when you realize that the Electron is like no other rocket that’s ever flown before.

Not that you could tell from the outside. If anything, the external appearance of the Electron might be called boring. Perhaps even derivative, if you’re feeling less generous. It has the same fin-less blunted cylinder shape of most modern rockets, a wholly sensible (if visually unexciting) design. The vehicle’s nine first stage engines would have been noteworthy 15 years ago, but today only serve to draw comparisons with SpaceX’s wildly successful Falcon 9.

But while the Electron’s outward appearance is about as unassuming as they come, under that jet-black outer skin is some of the most revolutionary rocket technology seen since the V-2 first proved practical liquid fueled rockets were possible. As impressive as its been watching SpaceX teach a rocket to fly backwards and land on its tail, their core technology is still largely the same as what took humanity to the Moon in the 1960’s.

Vehicles that fundimentally change the established rules of spaceflight are, as you might expect, fairly rare. They often have a tendency to go up in a ball of flames; figuratively if not always literally. Now that the Electron has reached space and delivered its first payload, there’s no longer a question if the technology is viable or not. But whether anyone but Rocket Lab will embrace all the changes introduced with Electron may end up getting decided by the free market.

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The SmallSat Launcher War

Over the last decade or so the definition of what a ‘small satellite’ is has ballooned beyond the original cubesat design specification to satellites of 50 or 100 kg. Today a ‘smallsat’ is defined far more around the cost, and sometimes the technologies used, than the size and shape of the box that goes into orbit.

There are now more than fifty companies working on launch vehicles dedicated to lifting these small satellites into orbit, and while nobody really expects all of those to survive the next few years, it’s going to be an interesting time in the launcher market. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeff Bezos’ statement that “there’s not that much interesting about cubesats” may well turn out to be the twenty first century’s “nobody needs more than 640kb,” and it’s possible that everybody is wrong about how many of the launcher companies will survive in the long term.

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