It’s very difficult to launch rockets into space successfully, and only a few companies and governments have been able to do it. It’s even more challenging to launch a rocket into space and then recover the first stage for use to lessen the expense of rocket launches. So far, SpaceX has proven very adept at recovering its Falcon 9 first stage rockets regularly to be refitted and re-flown.
A competitor to SpaceX called Rocket Lab has announced that it intends to attempt to recover the first stage of its Electron rocket on its next launch. It announced this week that the next Electron launch scheduled for November 15 in New Zealand would include the company’s first attempt to recover the first stage of the rocket. After the first stage separates from the rocket, it will reorient itself for re-entry into the atmosphere and deploy a drogue parachute and a larger main parachute before splashing into the Pacific Ocean.
The recovery site is about 400 kilometers from the launch site. Elements of the recovery system have been tested in the past, including two launches where the first stage survived reentry to the planet’s surface. Rocket Lab has separately tested the parachute system. This launch will be the first where the parachutes are deployed. Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, said that this would be an “all-up combined test.”
He describes the coming launch as the conclusion of several tests the company has been performing. Beck does admit there are “a lot of unknowns here.” The launch will be a test where all the recovery system elements come together and whether they can all work together properly remains to be seen. Beck noted that the parachutes would be no good if the first stage enters the atmosphere backward.
If all goes well, the first stage will splash into the ocean at a rate of 10 meters per second. A pair of boats will be located in the recovery zone to retrieve the rocket for analysis. After the rocket is recovered, engineers will study it to figure out what needs to be refurbished or replaced before it can be reused.