Grab a falling rocket and bring it back to shore …
On Tuesday (it will still be Monday evening in New York), Rocket Lab, a small company with a small rocket, aims to pull off 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 the helicopter to capture the rocket’s 39-foot-long used booster stage before splashing into the Pacific Ocean.
If the booster is in good condition, the rocket lab can renovate the vehicle, and then use it for another orbital launch, an achievement that has so far been achieved by only one company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Here’s what you need to know.
When and how can I see a launch and catch attempt?
The launch is currently scheduled for 6:41 p.m. Eastern Time. The video of the Rocket Lab mission will be streamed live on its YouTube channel or you can watch it in the player embedded above. The stream is about to start about 20 minutes before launch.
Why is Rocket Lab trying to catch its booster?
In the space launch industry, rockets were an expensive single-use throwway. Its reuse helps reduce the cost of delivering payloads into space and can speed up launches by reducing the number of rockets that need to be produced.
“Eighty percent of the cost of the entire rocket is in the first phase, in terms of both materials and labor,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview on Friday.
SpaceX ushers in a new era in reusable rockets and now regularly lands in the first phase of its Falcon 9 rocket and frequently flies it. The second phase of the Falcon 9 (as well as the rocket lab’s electron rocket) is still discarded, usually burning when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX’s next generation super rocket called Starship is completely reusable. Competitors such as Blue Origin and the United Launch Alliance are developing similarly reusable rockets, at least partially, like Chinese companies.
NASA’s space shuttles were also partially reusable, but required extensive and expensive work after each flight, and they never lived up to their promise of an airliner-like operation.
How will the catch operation work?
Upon launch, the booster will detach from the second stage of the electron rocket at an altitude of about 50 miles, and as it descends, it will move at a speed of 5,200 miles per hour.
A system of thrusters that emit cold gas will direct the booster as it descends, and thermal protection will protect it from temperatures above 4,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Atmospheric friction will act as a brake. About 7 minutes, 40 seconds after the liftoff, the booster’s falling speed will be twice as fast as the speed of sound. At that point, a small parachute named Drug will be deployed, adding additional drag. A larger main parachute then slows the booster more comfortably.
At an altitude of 5,000 to 10,000 feet, the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter will find a booster mid-air, which will draw a line with a grappling hook in the line between the drug and the main parachute.
After capturing the booster, the helicopter is to take it to the rocket lab ship or return to the ground.