Rocket Lab, a company that launches relatively small rockets, wants to use the lower stage of its Electron rockets for reuse from next year. Ultimately, this must be done through the deployment of a helicopter that must pluck the stairs from the air.
The American company says it wants to catch the first stage of the Electron rocket and let it fly again to increase the launch frequency. This is achieved because it is no longer necessary to build a new first rocket ladder for each launch.
Rocket Lab assumes two phases in the reuse plan. First, the company will attempt to salvage a full first rocket stage from the Electron after it enters the ocean. The second phase consists of picking the rocket ladder out of the air by a helicopter. This is made possible by the fact that the staircase is protected by a reinforced heat shield and is slowed down by parachutes when entering the atmosphere. The helicopter takes off from a ship and will transport the picked rocket ladder to that ship.
During the presentation of the plan, CEO Peter Beck indicated that SpaceX-like motorized independent landings from the lower rocket stage are out of the question, because the Electron is actually too small for that. He says his company is not interested in the medium-sized launch vehicle market. At Rocket Lab, it’s all about small launch vehicles that can perform launches for certain customers on a regular basis. Increasing the launch frequency is the core objective. Re-using the lower rocket stage must make a significant contribution to this and also reduce the costs per launch. By the way, Beck stated earlier that it was impossible to reuse the rocket, which he now returns to.
The Electron is a two-stage rocket with a length of seventeen meters that can transport a total of 225 kg in a low orbit around the earth, up to a height of approximately 500 km. The nine Rutherford Electron kerosene rocket motors from the Electron partly consist of components made with 3d printers. The rocket was launched for the first time in May 2017 and has so far reached space seven times. With the Electron, Rocket Lab is launching rideshare launches, whereby a considerable number of small satellites from different companies are included per mission. Rocket Lab is getting competition from SpaceX and ArianeSpace in these rideshare missions.
The concept of picking rocket stairs from the air is not new. United Launch Alliance has previously announced the launch of the Vulcan Centaur , a rocket that will replace the existing Delta IV Heavy and the Atlas V. This still-to-be, modular rocket must use the BE-4 methane rocket engines from Blue Origin. The idea is that the engine part of the lower rocket stage of the Vulcan Centaur will be shed after the launch, with an aeroshell folding out for orientation and protection against the heat of returning to the atmosphere. Then a parachute unfolds after which a helicopter picks the whole thing out of the air. This new rocket must make its first flight in 2021.