Small-satellite launch firm Rocket Lab announced on Tuesday a plan to recover the core booster of its Electron rocket using a helicopter, a bold cost-saving concept that, if successful, would make it the second company after Elon Musk’s SpaceX to reuse an orbital-class rocket booster.
“Electron is going reusable,” Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said during a presentation in Utah, showing an animation of the rocket sending a payload into a shallow orbit before speeding back through Earth’s atmosphere. “Launch frequency is the absolute key here.”
The Auckland, New Zealand-based company is one of a growing cadre of launch companies looking to slash the cost of sending shoebox-sized satellites to low Earth orbit, building smaller rockets and reinventing traditional production lines to meet a growing payload demand.
Electron, which has flown seven missions so far, can send up to 496 pounds (225 kg) into space for roughly $7 million.
Medium-class launchers such as Los Angeles-based Relativity Space can send up to 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg) into space for $10 million while Cedar Park, Texas-based firm Firefly can do it for $15 million.
Unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which reignites its engines to land steadily back on Earth “propulsively” after much larger missions costing around $62 million, Rocket Lab’s Electron will deploy a series of parachutes to slow its fall through what Beck called “the wall” – the violently fast and burning hot reentry process the booster endures shooting back through Earth’s atmosphere.
A helicopter will then hook the booster’s parachute in mid-air as it descends over the ocean and tow it back to a boat for recovery, Beck said.
“The grand goal here is, if we can capture the vehicle in wonderful condition, in theory we should be able to put it back on the pad, recharge the batteries up, and go again,” Beck said.
Some launch companies, such as Boeing-Lockheed venture United Launch Alliance which flies its Atlas V rocket, are skeptical of the economic case for reusing first-stage boosters propulsively, arguing that the fuel spent landing the rocket through the dense atmosphere and back on Earth would be better used to launch heavier payloads.
Beck said propulsive recoveries like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 “don’t scale well” with Electron’s smaller build, anyway. A spokeswoman would not say how much money Rocket Lab expects to save from its foray into hardware reusability, but said “cost reductions could flow from this in time.”