Rocket Lab successfully completed the restoration of the first phase of its Electron rocket during the launch of Return to Sender on November 20. During testing, Rocket Lab, the maker of one of the world’s most printed and operational rocket and rocket engines, returned the first stage of the Electron to Earth under a parachute system for controlled landing before collecting the vessel for recovery.
The mission represents the first time the Rocket Lab has attempted to rebuild after launch, and is an important milestone in Rocket Lab’s quest to make the Electron a reusable rocket to support increased launch cadence for small satellite missions. Future mission projects include the possibility of resuming the first phase while in the air by helicopter.
The Return to Sender mission, which was the 16th launch of the Rocket Lab Electron, was withdrawn from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahiya Peninsula in New Zealand. The mission also saw that Electron had deployed 30 payloads to a number of small satellite consumers in a 500-kilometer orbit that synchronized with the sun, and the recovery attempt was a secondary launch goal.
The first stage of the Electron performed the following complex maneuvers, returning to Earth:
About two and a half minutes after the ascent, at an altitude of about 80 km, the first and second stages of the Electron were separated according to the standard mission procedure. The second phase of the Electron continued in orbit, where the Kick Scene separated and deployed the satellites.
After shutting down the engines in the first stage of Electron, the reaction control system reoriented the scene 180 degrees to position it at the ideal angle for re-entry, designed to survive the incredible heat and pressure known as the “wall” as it descended back to Earth.
After decelerating to Mach level 2, the parachute from the corpse was deployed to increase resistance and stabilize the first stage during the descent. During the last kilometers of the descent, a large main parachute was deployed to slow down the stage even more and provide controlled splashing.
The Rocket Lab encountered the scene after the splash and pulled it out for transportation back to the Rocket Lab production complex for inspection.
The first stage Electron is equipped with guidance and navigation hardware, response control system, S-band telemetry range and on-board computer systems to support recovery. These stand-alone systems are designed solely for recovery and are completely removed from systems that perform the basic functions of a payload startup and deployment mission.
Work on the Rocket Lab recovery program began in early 2019, and the “Return to Sender” recovery attempt has followed a series of successful tests of recovery and hardware systems over the past 18 months. This includes the successful capture by helicopter of a test rocket in the air; successful tests of the deployment of the pole and the main parachutes in the following fictitious exercises, dropped at height; and successfully led the re-entry of the first phase of Electron into two real missions in December 2019 and January 2020, respectively.
The final stage of the Rocket Lab recovery program is now the capture of the first Electron helicopter in the air by helicopter before returning the stage to the Rocket Lab production facilities for recovery and restart. If the Rocket Lab recovery program is successful, Electron will be the first and only small orbital-class reboot system.