Rocket Lab successfully completed the recovery of the first stage of its Electron rocket during the Return to Sender launch on November 20th. The New Zealand company makes some of the most 3D printed – and actually operational – rockets and rocket engines in the World. The test saw Rocket Lab bring Electron’s first stage back to Earth under a parachute system for a controlled water landing, before collection by a recovery vessel.
The mission represented the first time that Rocket Lab has attempted to recover a stage after launch and is a major milestone in Rocket Lab’s pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to support an increased launch cadence for small satellite missions. Future mission projects include the possibility of recovering the first stage while still in the air via helicopters.
The ‘Return to Sender’ mission, which was Rocket Lab’s 16th Electron launch, lifted off from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. The mission also saw Electron deploy 30 payloads for a range of small satellite customers to a 500km sun-synchronous orbit, with the recovery attempt a secondary objective of the launch.
Electron’s first stage undertook the following complex maneuvers on its journey back to Earth:
Approximately two and a half minutes after lift-off, at an altitude of around 80 km, Electron’s first and second stages separated per standard mission procedure. Electron’s second stage continued into orbit, where the Kick Stage separated and deployed the satellites.
With the engines now shut down on Electron’s first stage, a reaction control system re-oriented the stage 180-degrees to place it on an ideal angle for re-entry, designed to enable it to survive the incredible heat and pressure known as “the wall” during its descent back to Earth.
After decelerating to below Mach 2, a drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descended. In the final kilometers of descent, a large main parachute was deployed to further slow the stage and enable a controlled splashdown.
A Rocket Lab vessel met with the stage after splashdown and retrieved it for transport back to Rocket Lab’s Production Complex for inspection.
Electron’s first stage is equipped with guidance and navigation hardware, a reaction control system, S-band telemetry, and onboard flight computer systems to support recovery. These standalone systems are dedicated exclusively to recovery and are entirely removed from the systems that carry out the primary mission functions of launch and payload deployment.
Work on Rocket Lab’s recovery program began in early 2019 and the ‘Return to Sender’ recovery attempt followed a series of successful tests of recovery and hardware systems over the past 18 months. These include a successful mid-air recovery capture of a test rocket stage by a helicopter; successful drogue and main parachute deployment tests in subsequent mock stage exercises dropped at altitude; and successfully guided re-entries of the Electron’s first stage across two real missions in December 2019 and January 2020 respectively.
The final phase of Rocket Lab’s recovery program is now to capture Electron’s first stage mid-air by helicopter before the stage is returned to Rocket Lab production complexes for refurbishment and relaunch. If Rocket Lab’s recovery program is successful, Electron would become the first and only reusable orbital-class small launch system in operation.