An electron rocket is getting ready to go.
Rocket Lab, the leading company that builds and launches small missiles, used what CEO Peter Beck called a "major milestone" in its missile reuse work on Thursday.
The company recovered its Electron rocket booster after it was sprayed down in the Pacific. The recovery came after Rocket Lab's 16th launch, which put 30 satellites into orbit for a variety of customers including TriSept, Swam Technologies, and Unseenlabs.
"Welcome back to Earth Electron!" Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a tweet, with an image showing the booster floating in the ocean next to one of the company's ships.
Beck's company, like Elon Musk's SpaceX, wants to restore the boosters so they can start more often – while reducing the cost of materials for each mission. However, Rocket Lab's approach to restoring its boosters is vastly different from SpaceX, which uses the booster motors to slow it down on re-entry and add wide legs to land on large concrete slabs.
Instead, Rocket Lab is testing a technology Beck calls an "Aero Thermal Decelerator" – essentially using the atmosphere to slow the rocket. After reaching space, the Rocket Lab on-board computer guides the booster through re-entry. Then a parachute is deployed from the top of the booster to slow it down and eventually allow the company to pluck it from the sky in a helicopter.
"This is the first time we have done anything but get caught under a helicopter," Beck told reporters before the launch.
The recovery took place in the ocean about 400 kilometers off the coast of New Zealand. Rocket Lab, which also has offices and facilities in the US, is starting from a private complex on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula. Rocket Lab will now ship the booster back to the company's manufacturing facility, where its engineers will inspect the rocket and collect data to help advance the recovery program.
Beck admitted prior to launch that, despite some previous tests, Rocket Lab is "far too early" to "understand what state we're going to pick up in".
"The strongest driver [of the recovery program] doesn't have to rebuild any missiles, so it really is the main driver to be able to increase the production rate," said Beck. "The ultimate goal here is to get it back into a state where we can put it back on the pad, refuel, recharge the batteries, and get started. And if we can reach that milestone, the economics will certainly change significantly . "
The benefits and economics of reusing missiles remain controversial in the space industry. SpaceXs Musk recently condemned competitor United Launch Alliance as "a complete waste of taxpayers' money" for not being able to reuse its rockets. SpaceX has steadily pushed the boundaries of rocket reuse, particularly with the landing of the booster – which is the largest and most expensive part.
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