Rocket Lab is a company aiming to follow SpaceX and Blue Origin in putting commercial payloads into space. SpaceX lost many first-stage rockets in the recovery attempt before successfully and routinely recovering its rockets today. Rocket Lab recently launched a payload and attempted to recover its first stage rocket for the first time.
On its first attempt to recover its Electron first stage, Rocket Lab was successful. Rocket Lab uses a different technique to recover its rockets compared to SpaceX. The first steps of recovery involve using control systems to re-orient the rocket after its payload is deployed.
After reorientation, a small drogue parachute is deployed to slow the rocket descent towards the ground. As the booster gets closer to the ground, a larger parachute deploys to slow it further as it gets closer to the surface of the ocean. The rocket then splashes down, and a recovery vessel is used to recover it.
Rocket Lab called the mission leading to its first successful recovery operation “Return to Sender,” and it put 30 small satellites into orbit with the entire process going smoothly. While the company hoped to recover the first stage, the main objective was to test the drogue and parachute system’s performance.
Data obtained on the parachute system will be used to refine the recovery program in the future. Rocket Lab has plans to capture the first stage rockets mid-air using a helicopter eventually. As crazy as that sounds, the company did demonstrate the technique using a dummy first stage rocket earlier this year. Interestingly, while Rocket Lab purposefully allows its rockets to land in the ocean, SpaceX deliberately tries to avoid any water landings using automated drone ships and recovery landings on land.