Catch a falling rocket and bring it back to shore…
On Tuesday (it will still be Monday night in New York), Rocket Lab, a small company with a small rocket, aims to accomplish an impressive feat during its latest launch off the east coast of New Zealand. After sending a payload of 34 small satellites into orbit, the company will use a helicopter to pick up the rocket’s used 39-foot-long propulsion stage before it crashes into the Pacific Ocean.
If the booster is in good condition, Rocket Lab can refurbish the vehicle and use it for another orbital launch, an achievement so far accomplished by just one company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Here’s what you need to know.
When and how can I watch the launch and capture attempt?
The launch is scheduled for 6:41 pm Eastern Time. Rocket Lab will stream the mission video live on its YouTube channel, or you can watch it in the embedded player above. The broadcast is scheduled to start about 20 minutes before launch.
Why is Rocket Lab trying to get your booster?
In the space launch industry, rockets used to be expensive single-use disposables. Reusing them helps reduce the cost of delivering payloads into space and can speed up the pace of launch, reducing the number of rockets that need to be manufactured.
“Eighty percent of the cost of the entire rocket is in this first stage, both in terms of materials and labor,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview on Friday.
SpaceX pioneered a new era in reusable rockets and now regularly lands the first stages of its Falcon 9 rockets and flies them over and over again. Falcon 9’s second stages (as well as Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket) are still discarded, typically burning up upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX’s next-generation super rocket called the Starship is supposed to be fully reusable. Competitors like Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are developing rockets that are at least partially reusable, as are companies in China.
NASA’s space shuttles were also partially reusable, but they required extensive and expensive work after each flight, and they never delivered on their promise of airplane-like operations.
How will the capture operation work?
Upon launch, the booster will detach from the Electron rocket’s second stage at an altitude of about 50 miles, and during descent it will accelerate to 5,200 miles per hour.
A system of thrusters that expel cold gas will guide the booster as it drops, and thermal shielding will protect it from temperatures in excess of 4,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
The friction of the atmosphere will act as a brake. About 7 minutes, 40 seconds after takeoff, the booster’s fall speed will decrease to less than twice the speed of sound. At that point, a small parachute called a drogue will deploy, adding additional drag. A larger main parachute further slows the booster speed to a slower rate.
A Sikorsky S-92 helicopter hovering in the area at an altitude of 5,000 to 10,000 feet will find the booster in the air, dragging a line with a hook along the line between the drogue and the main parachutes.
After picking up the booster, the helicopter must carry it to a Rocket Lab ship or all the way back to Earth.